Asian elephants - threats

The continually growing human population of tropical Asia has encroached on the elephant's dense but dwindling forest habitat. About 20% of the world's human population lives in or near the present range of the Asian elephant.


 


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Indian elephants (Elephas maximus bengalensis) carrying their trainers across a river at the Thai ... rel=
Indian elephants (Elephas maximus bengalensis) carrying their trainers across a river at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. Chiang Mai, Thailand
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

Conflict, loss of land and hunting

Fierce competition for living space has resulted in human suffering, a dramatic loss of forest cover, and reduced Asian elephant numbers to between 25,600 and 32,750 animals in the wild.
Asian elephant populations are highly fragmented, with fewer than 10 populations comprising more than 1,000 individuals in a contiguous area, greatly decreasing their chances for survival.

Most of the national parks and reserves where elephants occur are too small to accommodate viable elephant populations. The conversion of forested areas to agricultural use also leads to serious elephant-human conflicts. In India, up to 300 people are killed by elephants each year.
Habitat loss and fragmentation

In the face of rapidly growing human populations, the Asian elephants' habitat is shrinking fast and wild elephant populations are mostly small, isolated, and unable to mingle as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.

Large development projects (such as dams, roads, mines and industrial complexes), plantations and spreading human settlements have fragmented what was once contiguous elephant habitat into small fragments.

Incidents of elephants raiding crops and villages are on the rise. This causes losses to human property and, sometimes, human lives. Retaliation by villagers often results in killings of these elephants. Experts already consider such confrontations to be the leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia.

In some countries, the government provides compensation for crop damage or deaths caused by elephants, but there is still often strong political pressure on wildlife authorities to eliminate elephants near populated regions. As human populations increase, elephant-human conflicts are likely to rise.

Illegal hunting and trade

In Asian elephants, only males carry tusks and therefore poaching is aimed exclusively at males. Selective removal of tuskers for their ivory may lead to an increase in the proportion of tuskless males in the population.

Poaching of Asian elephants for ivory and meat remains a serious problem in many countries, especially in southern India (where 90% of the bulls are tuskers) and in north-east India where some people eat elephant meat.

A 1997 TRAFFIC report indicated that, seven years after international trade in ivory was banned, illegal commerce continued in the Far East, with South Korea and Taiwan being major markets. However, most of this illegal ivory appeared to come from African sources, rather than from Asian elephants.

Capture of wild elephants

The capture of wild elephants for domestic use has become a threat to wild populations where numbers have been seriously reduced. India, Vietnam, and Myanmar have banned capture in order to conserve their wild herds, but in Myanmar elephants are still caught each year for the timber industry or the illegal wildlife trade.

Unfortunately, crude capture methods have led to a high mortality level. Efforts are being made not only to improve safety but also to encourage captive breeding rather than taking from the wild. With nearly 30% of the remaining Asian elephants in captivity, attention needs to be paid to improved care and, where appropriate, reintroduction of individuals into the wild.

Genetic threat

There has been concern about the genetic effects of reduced numbers of male big tuskers. The danger arises when they are eliminated, and poachers find it worthwhile to kill immature males for their small tusks. When tuskers are killed, the number of males in a population decreases, resulting in skewed sex ratios. This may lead to inbreeding and eventually to high juvenile mortality and overall low breeding success. Removing large tuskers also reduces the probability that these longer-ranging loners will mate and exchange genes with females of different sub-populations.

Disease

In the early 1990s, an outbreak of haemorrhagic septicaemia, a cattle disease rare among elephants, was responsible for the deaths of several animals in Sri Lanka's Uda Walawe National Park in May 1994. In small herds of elephants, epidemics such as this could wipe out entire groups.
 / ©: A. Christy Williams / WWF-Canon
Indian elephant (Elephas maximus bengalensis); radio collared adult female with juvenile killed after being run over by a speeding train fragmenting their habitat in Rajaji National Park, India.
© A. Christy Williams / WWF-Canon

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