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Published:November 8th, 2007 07:44 EST
Asiatic elephant conservation should be priority

Asiatic elephant conservation should be priority

By Chester Moore (Editor)

The Asiatic elephant is spiraling toward extinction in the wild at an extremely alarming rate.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates wild populations, which are scattered throughout India, Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and a few other countries is between 25,600 to 32,750 individuals.

In comparison, WWF officials estimate there are between 470,000 and 690,000 African elephants left in the wild, putting their numbers at nearly 20 times the best calculations of Asiatics. Still, most media coverage on elephant problems deals strictly with Africans, which are NOT in immediate danger of extinction.

In fact, several countries have to (controversially) cull their herds annually because elephant numbers exceed the carrying capacity of the land.

So, why has the wildlife media (especially television) essentially ignored problems facing the Asiatic elephant?

The answer can be summed up in one word: sensationalism.

In the age of 24-hour news coverage, hundreds of television networks including several totally dedicated to nature, headlines with the most sensational, lurid headlines stand out.

Ivory poachers slaughter elephants on Savannah, leave bodies to rot” grabs one’s attention a lot quicker than “Population growth threatens elephants throughout Asia”.

Both problems are real but the latter is a much greater and immediate problem despite the lack of bloody imagery. The fact is while elephant poaching has been curtailed greatly in Africa, the problems faced by elephants in Asia continue to grow exponentially.

Ivory-poaching while problematic in Asia is not the primary force in the decline of elephants there simply because many of the elephants do not have tusks and those that do generally are not as large as their African cousins. Human population growth and its effect on habitat and an increase in human/elephant conflicts however is a huge threat.

Take into account the fact that approximately 20 percent of the world’s population lives in or near the range of Asian elephants. That’s right 1 in 5 people in the world live in the Asiatic elephant’s native range. India alone, which has the largest population of elephants in Asia, has an estimated population of 1.136 billion people. By comparison, the entire continent of Africa has 680,000,000 people.

When you take into account China’s population of 1.3 billion, which has resulted in the near extinction of their elephant herd and swelling populations throughout the rest of Asia, you can see this is a problem that is not going away and will continue to grow.

The result has been a litany of problems facing elephants in the region including the following:

#The raw loss of habitat is the major problem. Elephants require upwards of 500 pounds of food a day and with billions of people occupying former elephant range and utilizing forest resources, there is little left for them.
#An increase in demand for tea around the world has caused the spread of plantations that are ripe for human/elephant conflict. When an elephant comes stomping through a crop, it is often shot on site or electrocuted by security fencing as some were last summer.
#Tuberculosis (TB) which is the second largest killer of people behind Aids is transferable to elephants. Several Asian countries most notably Nepal has had major TB outbreaks in their herd causing serious declines of an already tiny population.
#As noted earlier poaching is not the chief problem with Asia’s elephant herd but since females do not sport heavy tusks, the poaching that does take place has caused an imbalance in the herd, as nearly all poached animals are males. An unbalance male/female ratio can cause problems including inbreeding in many areas.
#Illegal logging is a major problem in some Asian countries and contributes to the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of elephant habitat annually.

The good news is there is still time to conserve the Asian elephant herd if the conservation world acts now. Several groups including the WWF, the International Elephant Foundation and Elephant Care International are working toward solving the above problems and deserve support.

The following goals should be examined by the wildlife conservation community and considered a class 1 priority.

#Establish a system of refuges and travel corridors in key elephant areas. Protecting available land along historic elephant travel routes, would allow for more foraging opportunities and reduce genetic bottlenecks caused by isolated populations.
#Promote inexpensive and effective means of reducing human/elephant conflicts such as the tower and tripwire project recently funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asian Elephant Conservation Fund.
#Work with governments to increase penalties for poaching elephants and heavily publicize convictions throughout elephant territory.
#Work to curtail the spread of TB and other diseases among the elephant population.
#Continue to educate the public about the dangers of buying elephant based products and those, which take from Asian forests.

The demise of the Asiatic elephant could end up being the greatest blunder in the history of endangered wildlife conservation. This is a species we know a lot about and that has served many in many ways ranging from transportation to entertainment.

We owe them the respect they deserve and the full attention of conservation efforts. Their plight may not inspire dozens of television specials, editorials and bumper stickers but it is real nonetheless.

And if the conservation community at large does not wake up, it could end up haunting them as a truly magnificent species slips below the radar into extinction in the wild.

To reade more about elephants and other wildlife go to Chester Moore's blog at http://www.projectzooquest.org.