Asian Elephant Facing Multitude of Threats

GLAND, Switzerland, December 13, 2000 (ENS) - Loved from afar but increasingly persecuted at home, the Asian elephant is being forced to withdraw to a fraction of its former territory, says a report published today.

"Asian elephants in the wild," by Elizabeth Kemf and Charles Santiapillai, says Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are being forced out of their forest homes by logging, agricultural clearance and ill planned development schemes.

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The Asian elephant is fast losing what little habitat it has left. (Photos courtesy Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand http://www.phuket.com/conservation/elephants.htm)
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which released the report, warns that unless urgent action is taken to help solve the conflict between humans and elephants, there will be further drops in the numbers of elephants across Asia.

"Of the 35,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants that cling to survival, most of these are being squeezed into increasingly smaller woodland areas," said Kemf, WWF's Species Conservation Information Manager.

"The elephant, which is a loveable, if not revered animal for the world at large, has become a menace for many living in its territory," added Kemf.

The entire Asian elephant population numbers about 10 per cent of the total Africa population and survives in only 13 countries. The creature originated 55 million years ago and herds roamed the vast area between modern Iraq and Syria to the Yellow River in China.

Today, it is found from India to Vietnam, with a tiny population in the extreme southwest of China's Yunnan Province.

Population growth and resettlement programs have produced fatal clashes between humans and elephants. The report claims the species is being poisoned by plantation workers, shot by angry farmers, and killed for meat, hide and tusks.

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An Asian elephant killed for its tusks.
Elephants are increasingly being killed accidentally in train and road collisions. In 1997, Sri Lanka lost 126 wild elephants to human-animal conflict. Conversely, up to 300 people died in India last year as hungry elephants raided crops.

More forests are being cleared for settlement and agriculture, disrupting traditional elephant migration routes.

Poaching, too, is taking its toll. Ivory is only found in male Asian elephants, which has led to bulls being hunted so extensively that sex ratios have been severely affected, particularly in southern India, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Two years ago, poachers in Cambodia had slaughtered so many bull elephants for their tusks that the country considered importing bulls from neighbouring Laos. Some animals have even been "worked to death" in logging camps, says the report.

WWF wants governments to ensure that national and international companies comply with legislation regarding biodiversity protection when they exploit natural resources in elephant habitat. These companies must be made accountable for implementing sound forest use practices, says the group.

It also wants stronger enforcement of regulations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Worldwide concern over the decline of both the African and Asian elephant led to a complete ban on the ivory trade in 1990. Elephants are on Appendix I of CITES, which means all trade in elephant parts is prohibited.

"Ensuring the long term survival of the Asian elephant will cost money," said Kemf, who has worked regularly with ethnic minority communities and elephant owners in Vietnam's Dak Lak province.

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WWF reports some Asian elephants have been worked to death.
Co-author Charles Santiapillai is professor of zoology at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and executive officer of the World Conservation Union's Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

"WWF believes that richer governments have a duty to give technical and financial aid to tackle some of these urgent problems," said Kemf.

"We need to ensure that there are sufficient well trained personnel to deal with the sociological, economic and ecological problems which threaten the survival of a heritage that belongs not only to Asia, but all the world's people," she added.

WWF funds elephant projects in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal and Malaysia.

The group has developed an Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS). Its aim is to coordinate a strategic approach to WWF's work on elephants and rhinos in Asia.

Under AREAS, a project portfolio is being developed, and funding has been secured for several activities over the next two years. The strategy has identified 13 major areas for action, eight of which are particularly important for Asian elephants.