Threats and conservation

Current estimates indicate that there are only 30,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild – a tenth the number of the African species - with a further 15,000 or so held in captivity. 

Threats

Elephants face a dual threat to their survival

  • the destruction of their habitat
  • poachers hunting elephant for their ivory tusks 
Hunting

The hunting of elephants for meat has been practised since prehistoric times, but only with the use of firearms has the thirst for ivory posed a threat to the very survival of the species. The effect of ivory hunting on the Asian elephant is somewhat different from that on its African cousin, since in the African elephant both males and females carry tusks and are hunted, while in the Asian species only the males have ivory. This has led to a situation in some parts of Asia where the natural female-to-male ratio of 2:1 has risen to anything from 5:1 in the best-protected areas, to 100:1 in the worst; in the latter cases, the survival of even sizeable populations is threatened because of lowered reproductive rate.

From its foundation in the 1970s, CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed Asian elephants on its Appendix I, effectively banning all trade in their ivory. However, poaching and trading in ivory continues. Combating the ivory trade is a complex issue that requires the enforcement not only of bans against hunting, but international action to trace the organizers of poaching, the middle men, and the ultimate consumers.

Habitat destruction

In addition, habitat destruction has both reduced the total range of elephants, and has greatly fragmented it. The principal cause is human settlement and agriculture due to population growth, but activities such as logging for financial gain also contribute. Over much of the range, the remaining areas of habitat correspond to national parks, nature reserves and the like. Many of these fragments retain less than 100 individuals, and prospects for their long-term survival are not good. If there is no exchange of individuals with other populations, inbreeding reduces the genetic health of the population. If climatic fluctuations produce a series of stressful years, the population will suffer increased mortality and reduced birth rate, and may not recover.

Elephant-human conflict 

is a serious issue in some areas. Elephants enter agricultural areas and can destroy the entire crop of a small holding in a single night. They also damage buildings and annually kill dozens of villagers in Asia. Traditional countermeasures include lighting flares, throwing rocks, employing domestic elephants to chase away the marauders, or digging trenches around fields. The latter are of some use but elephants learn how to fill them with earth or logs. Electric fences are employed by rich landowners, but are too expensive to bound large national parks or small private holdings. Other measures include not planting crops favoured by elephants in the area around their habitat, and relocating farms and villages (with compensation paid to the farmers). The latter may also be necessary when extending reserves or creating habitat corridors.

Conservation

The management and protection of elephant habitats is thus a major goal. International support enabling poor countries to maintain existing wildlife reserves, or to create new ones, is crucial. Properly managed eco-tourism can be beneficial, as it provides an income underscoring the value of the reserve. Yet small reserves, even when protected, may not support enough animals to give a viable population. Raman Sukumar has suggested that 50 breeding individuals, translating into 125-150 animals, is a minimum goal, with 10 times that number an ideal. One solution to this problem is to create corridors of habitat, allowing animals to migrate between parks, so that populations are effectively merged into one, viable unit.