Only 35,000 Asian elephants remain and we are on the brink of losing this iconic species forever.
With the escalation of habitat destruction, human-elephant conflict and sustained poaching, the future of the Asian elephant is uncertain.
Elephants once roamed across most of Asia, from Iraq to India and from Southern China to the islands of Indonesia. However, habitat destruction has reduced their range to just 15% of their former habitat. The remaining forest is highly fragmented, and with few corridors to connect them, herds now survive only in small, isolated pockets, where they are vulnerable to poaching and inbreeding.
Widespread agricultural development and encroachment by humans into protected areas has forced surviving elephants into conflict with humans. Approximately 20% of the world’s human population lives in or near Asian elephant herds, and human-elephant conflict is rapidly becoming one the biggest threats facing elephants. Asian elephants do not travel as much as their African counterparts, as they are highly adaptable, and are found in a variety of habitats in Asia. However, there are a few migration routes that have been passed down from generation to generation to help the elephants get to known sources of food. Humans are settling these traditional migration routes, and farms built on them are often trampled, increasing conflict and hostility toward elephants.
Elephants in Asia have a long and complicated past with people. Throughout history, they have provoked a sense of awe and admiration. Revered in ancient and modern culture, the elephant is a symbol of strength and wisdom. They were once captured for use in wars and as a means of transportation in the jungle. More recently, a significant number of elephants are kept in captivity for use in tourism and the logging industry. Babies are torn from their mothers, beaten into submission, and forced to spend the rest of their lives in cruel and inhumane conditions. Fronting as rescue centers, these highly intelligent animals are exploited by the tourism industry, and often kept in poorly managed facilities where they are underfed and ill-treated.
The devastating effects of the ivory trade are not limited to African elephant populations. The increasingly sophisticated and large-scale nature of elephant poaching indicates that these mammals are being targeted by organized crime syndicates that use the funds to fuel corruption, terrorism and extremism. Over the past four years, the price of ivory on the black market has tripled in countries like China and Vietnam. Only male Asian elephants grow tusks, and their targeted poaching is creating a gender imbalance that threatens the ability of populations to rebound.
The situation may be far worse than we think. While the accepted 35,000 population figure is depressing, the reality is that this number is a rough estimate that has been in circulation for almost 25 years. Forest cover makes the real numbers difficult to know for sure, but most field conservationists estimate far fewer actual numbers.
Elephants are silently disappearing from Asia and unless we raise our collective voices to put an end to the destruction, we will lose them forever.
Self-aware and altruistic, these incredible animals can express grief, compassion and can even recognize themselves in a mirror. They mourn their dead by staying by the bodies of slain members for hours or even days. They reflect some of the best qualities of humans and yet these majestic animals will disappear in our lifetime if we do nothing.
The situation is bleak, but we are not without hope. It requires both a cultural and environmental policy shift, and movement by people to come together to make a difference. Together, we can put an end to the supply, demand and trade of elephants and elephant parts. Wildlife Alliance is working on the ground to preserve elephant habitat, curb the illegal wildlife trade and protect the remaining elephants that exist in the wild.
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