Threats to Wild Elephants
- No room to roam: The greatest threat to wild Asian elephants is habitat loss and fragmentation. Throughout the tropics, humans have cleared large areas of forest and have rapidly populated river valleys and plains. Elephants have been pushed into hilly landscapes and less suitable remnants of forest, but even these less accessible habitats are being assaulted by poachers, loggers, and developers.
Once-continuous habitat has become increasingly broken up by dams, tea and coffee plantations, roads, and railway lines. These developments obstruct the seasonal migrations of elephant clans. Habitat fragmentation also divides elephant populations into small, isolated groups, which are then at risk of inbreeding. Some biologists believe that there are no longer any wild Asian elephant populations large enough to avoid genetic deterioration over the long term.
- Conflicts with humans: When elephants stray out of the forest into settled areas, they sometimes destroy property, trample crops, and even kill people. Not infrequently, farmers respond with gunfire or poison.
- Ivory poaching: The international ivory trade has contributed far more to the decline of African elephants than Asian ones over the last few decades. Still, the people of Asia have a 500-year tradition of ivory carving and often hunt males for their tusks.
- Capture of young elephants: Many young elephants are removed from the wild to supply tourist and entertainment industries. In the process, mothers and other females attempting to protect the young are killed. Many calves captured for such purposes are prematurely weaned, socially isolated or otherwise cruelly treated, and die before they reach age five.
Threats to Domestic Elephants
For thousands of years the elephant was part of the fabric of daily life in Asia. They served primarily to transport goods and people. When the 20th century began, elephants were put to use by the timber industry, destroying their own habitat in the process
As roles for captive animals dry up, impoverished elephants and their mahouts are a common sight in Asian urban landscape.
Elephants are now competing for fewer jobs at lower pay, which has forced mahouts to accept undesirable jobs or to overwork their animals.:
- The tourist industry: Ecotourism is a booming market in many developing countries, and often it’s the only viable solution for elephants. In addition to offering protection to some wild herds so that tourists can observe them in their natural habitat, ecotourism has given many domesticated elephants better work opportunities. The elephants that carry tourists safely on treks through the jungle are usually well cared for. “It’s not desirable; it’s not traditional,” Lair points out. “On the other hand, it’s relatively harmless, and it’s the only form of employment that will make sure that people continue to keep elephants.” But not all elephants are temperamentally suited for toting tourists—especially not the large, aggressive male elephants once valued by loggers.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of elephants are also being used in less benign forms of tourism. Performing in shows or serving as special attractions in hotels and tourist spots, they often suffer from lack of social contact with fellow elephants or risk injury doing dangerous and unnatural tricks.
Solving the Plight
Fortunately, the elephant has become a flagship species of wildlife conservation in all 13 countries of Asia where it is still found. Efforts are being made on many fronts:
- Improving protection of wild herds: This is complicated. Populations must be large enough offset inbreeding and environmental dangers such as droughts and floods. Yet herd size must be controlled to minimize encroachment on human habitats and to foster local support for elephant conservation.
Trenches, electric fences, spotlights, and noisy rockets have all been used to deter elephants from straying onto planted fields, but with varying degrees of success. Other tactics include persuading farmers to grow crops that aren’t attractive to elephants and removing troublesome bull elephants. However, the males disproportionately responsible for crop damage and attacks on humans tend to be the most successful breeders, so eliminating them from the population isn’t a desirable solution. If existing habitat is inadequate, sometimes elephants are relocated to roomier ones.