Conservation of Asian Elephants

Here is the second of three guest blogs from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo as part of Smithsonian Month!  Check out the first post here.

From Crop-Raider to Conservation Flagship

Asian elephantAsian elephants face almost certain extinction in almost every place they exist. Only 30,000-50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, scattered across fragmented habitats in 13 Asian countries. Although Asian elephants have been little affected by the recent increases in the illegal ivory trade—only the males have tusks and these generally are smaller than in their African relatives—wild populations have declined dramatically over the last century.

The main threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss that inevitably leads to conflicts between elephants and farmers or plantation owners. Often this conflict resembles a civil war fought at night in rural rice paddies. As soon as the sun begins to set, elephants come from the forests and begin thrashing through the fields where farmers may be waiting with torches, rocks, china crackers, and sometimes guns to prevent elephants from destroying their livelihoods. When the night is over, elephants retreat to forest remnants and farmers return to their work. However, ultimately elephants lose in this struggle for survival, being shot, poisoned, electrocuted, or driven from the land.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) works with researchers and conservationists across Asia to study human-elephant conflict, assess current management strategies, develop new ones, and save elephants.

Elephant crossingFor people living in western nations the extent of this conflict is difficult to understand and we tend to be very critical of Asian countries for not doing more to conserve elephants. However, few of us would tolerate a 3-5 ton elephant appearing in our backyard, eating our tomatoes, thrashing our car and perhaps house, and attacking a group of children as they are waiting for the school bus. To help understand the magnitude of the problem imagine the situation in Sri Lanka, a country roughly the size of West Virginia. Sri Lanka has 20 million people, while West Virginia has only 2 million. Add 4,000 wild elephants to Sri Lanka’s densely populated rural areas and conflict seems unavoidable. About 60-100 people get killed each year in Sri Lanka in accidental encounters with elephants and probably twice as many elephants are killed in these conflicts.

Asian governments and their wildlife agencies are struggling to address this human-elephant conflict. They need to keep people and their properties save while conserving a threatened species. If they are successful in keeping people safe, elephants may go extinct. If they are successful in conserving elephants, their populations may increase, making the conflict worse and resulting in more human casualties. There are no silver bullet solutions to this conundrum, and buy cialis online without a prescription wildlife managers need to be trained to apply a set of management tools, ranging from land use planning and electric fencing of crops to population control. Such management needs to be monitored to continuously assess its effectiveness and adapt to changes in the elephant’s behavior. Monitoring is essential because elephants are very intelligent and adaptable and often find ways around human measures to safeguard their crops.

In Sri Lanka, SCBI collaborates with the Centre for Conservation Research (CCR) to assess the effectiveness of elephant translocations. Results from this work show that translocation of crop-raiding bull elephants from agricultural areas to protected areas was ineffective in achieving the management goals of conserving the elephants and reducing human-elephant conflict. Two of the translocated elephants were killed and all others left the parks to return to crop raiding. For more information on this research and CCR, check out this study.

In Malaysia, SCBI is collaborating with researchers at the Nottingham University Malaysia Campus. They have developed a joint project with the Perhilitan, the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks, focusing on the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME). One of the main goals of MEME is to develop science-based management strategies for elephant conservation. MEME is unique in the application of modern technology for elephant conservation, integrating the innovative use of remote camera trapping, satellite-tracking of elephants, and monitoring wildlife and habitat from conservation drones. For more information on MEME see their quarterly online-reports and their Facebook page.

This entry reflects the author’s personal judgments and does not represent the views of the United States Government or the Department of State.

2 thoughts on “Conservation of Asian Elephants

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