“Elephants are important for our survival. By saving them we are forced to save big forests. By saving big forests we save all animals. If we do not, all nature will disappear and we destroy ourselves.” Parbati Barua
Approximately 30,000, but this is just an estimate: there are no standard census techniques. Realistically there may be anywhere between 20,000 – 60,000 Asian elephants remaining in the wild.
Thirteen countries still have populations of Asian elephants: the Indian elephant is found on mainland Asia in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Thailand, peninsular Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, and the very southern tip of China bordering the latter two. The Sri Lankan and Sumatran elephant of Indonesia are restricted to their respective islands. Elephants are also found on the island of Borneo. The range of the Asian elephant once extended as far west as Syria and Iraq east through Asia south of the Himalayas, into southern China and south to Java: the Syrian elephant disappeared more than 2,000 years ago, while the Chinese elephant became extinct even earlier.
Elephants occupy a broader range of habitats than almost any other large mammal besides humans. Asian elephants live in a variety of tropical forest habitats from lowland rainforest on Sumatra and Borneo to dry semi-deciduous forests, scrubland, grassland and cooler mountain forests up to more than 3,000m in the northern reaches of their range. They are also adaptable and will live in cultivated areas and secondary forest.
Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, and their backs are more convex or level. Their head has two domes rather than one, and they have smaller ears. Their trunk has just one “finger” while African elephants have two, but they are both just as dextrous. Unlike African elephants, predominantly only male Asian elephants have tusks, and even tuskless males – makhnas – are regularly recorded. Some females have just short, stunted tusks known as tushes. Their skin is smoother than African elephants, grey-brown in colour, and often lacking pigment in patches on the trunk, ears and neck, which consequently appear pink. Males can be taller than 3m at the shoulder, with females reaching up to 2.5m.
Asian elephants can live for up to 55-70 years in the wild, but only one in five may make it to this age, and as many as half may die before they are 15.
Once infants reach sexual maturity, females tend to stay with the herd, while males are driven away and may form small bachelor groups, or roam independently. The females remain in small family herds led by a matriarch who tends to be the oldest, largest and most experienced female. Calves are cared for by their mothers and aunts. The matriarch will determine the group’s movements and activities, and on occasion related family groups may come together to form larger clans. Groups may roam widely depending on the availability of food and water, and often follow traditional, seasonal migration routes, sometimes travelling up to 30km per day. When human activity of any form cuts across one of these routes, elephants trying to pass between feeding sites may suddenly find themselves unable to do so, and/or encountering people, often with tragic outcomes.
Asian Elephants are herbivores and need to eat about 10% of their body weight every day: up to 150-200kg for adults. As a result they may spend up to 18 hours per day feeding on grasses, leaves, fruits, roots, vines, and bark of as many as 200 different species. They also need to drink up to 200 litres of water every day, and their trunk can take in 5-10 litres in one suck.
Elephants are one of the greatest examples of an ecological “keystone” species: the lives of so many other organisms depend on their existence and they define the ecosystems in which they are found. Their consumption of vast amounts of vegetation, and even how they physically open up clearings, for example, ensures that certain plant species don’t come to dominate in any one environment. This results in a much greater variety of plants and also animals that feed on them. Elephants’ feeding behaviour is also such that what they spill or shake free from high branches can suddenly become available to other animals. Elephants are also known to enlarge and deepen water supplies with their tusks in times of drought, and this too benefits countless other animals. Furthermore, numerous plants rely on them to disperse their seeds and help them germinate in their very own parcels of organic fertiliser. Animals that subsequently feed on these plants, and the animals that feed on them, therefore indirectly depend on the elephants. Because of the great quantity of seeds that they are passing and the distances over which they do so, one can see how elephants genuinely do shape their environments, and as such they have been referred to as the “megagardeners of the forest”. Lose the elephants and the ecosystems rapidly deteriorate
As Douglas Chadwick puts it in The Fate of the Elephant: “Conserving elephants [is] much more than an issue about how to protect a single great species. It is about protecting one of the forces that shapes ecosystems and helps sustain the wealth of wildlife found across much of the continent. It is about saving the creative power of nature.”
Because of the vast areas they need in which to roam, the foremost threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss on a massive scale. The spread of human settlements, plantations, farming, mining and railways in rapidly developing nations is leaving elephant groups marooned in ever-decreasing pockets of forest. Approximately 95% of their original habitat has been destroyed by people. Deprived of their habitat, and increasingly isolated from other groups, elephant numbers are falling. Those that survive are forced into areas of human activity, if not just to pass between forest patches, then directly to raid crops. The once harmonious relationships between elephants and people are breaking down, and all too frequently both people and elephants are killed when conflict flares up.
In addition, while it is not as significant a threat as it is to African elephants, the ivory trade has never been overcome. While the market for ivory has dropped off in some parts of the world, there has been an upsurge in demand in others, particularly China, and poaching of Asian elephants still occurs. Because only the males have tusks that are of any interest to poachers, their targeted removal from populations can upset the gender balance in populations and threaten their future viability.
Finally, while its full extent has yet to be documented, the trade in live Asian elephants, capturing them from the wild to supply the captive market, also threatens the survival of particular populations in some areas.
The immediate priority to save the Asian elephant is to secure as many of their traditional migration routes as possible. These wildlife corridors will often connect two protected areas, and so once secured they can be incorporated into one of those protected areas. The process may require the purchase of land and the voluntary and supported resettlement of any communities living within the corridor and conflict zone.
Human-elephant conflict is most likely to occur and become progressively worse in these regions as elephants try to access feeding sites and water, and may raid crops and enter villages to do so. A variety of approaches are required to prevent conflict between people and elephants, including physical barriers to keep elephants away, the driving away of elephants, early-warning systems to forewarn of potential encounters, land-use planning, and various other ways of working with local communities so that they can continue to live side-by-side with elephants.
Countering both poaching and the live trade meanwhile includes a variety of law enforcement measures, ongoing training and capacity building of rangers, guards and other wildlife officials, combined with information gathering to keep one step ahead of the criminals.
Through a combination of the above approaches, Elephant Family is working to save Asian elephants wherever its intervention is most needed and can be delivered effectively. This is achieved through developing long-term strategic alliances with a number of local partner organisations across Asia, and with them ten large-scale conservation projects and other grass-roots community projects that demonstrate effective and innovative conservation solutions.