Frontline Online: 14 elephants found dead in Borneo

12th February 2013

A baby elephat tries to wake its sleeping (dead) mother. Image courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department.

Ruth & Mary Powys on behalf of ‘Elephant Family’ report on the tragic plight of the Asian elephant.

For London-based conservation charity, Elephant Family, the fact that Asian elephants made the news last week is news in itself. The emotive image of a baby Asian elephant trying to wake its dying mother momentarily turned a full beam spotlight on their plight. 

The grotesque sight of bloated, upturned elephants is being reported all too frequently in forests right across Asia. Gruesome discoveries of entire family groups are coming in on a weekly basis. While the causes vary, the result is the same: the steady annihilation of a species is well underway, with only the photogenic cases making the news.

And therein lies the problem – the plight of Asia’s wild elephants is hidden from view. The death toll is building-up in dark jungles, private plantations, on railway tracks and remote plantations rather than open savannah landscapes, so much easier to document from the air. 

The causes are as fragmented as their forest homes. Whether it’s a speeding train, whose route slices through their habitat or a low-hanging power line touched by a curious trunk. Whether it’s the presence of a new steel mine that has drained a vital watering hole or a poor subsistence farmer laying poison in a desperate bid to protect his livelihood. Whatever the method the reason for their disappearance comes down to the same problem - deadly competition with humans for the same habitat.

But when it comes to elephants, it seems there is just one story: the terrible poaching of the African elephant. The thirst for ivory is ramping-up, driven largely by demand from China’s rising middle class. In 2011 alone, organized criminal gangs destroyed an estimated 25,000 elephants. The total African elephant population is estimated to be between 400,000 - 700,000, and at least until the recent increase in ivory poaching was, on average, increasing in numbers.

But there is another story: the plight of the Asian elephant. This is the story of massive habitat loss; of human population explosions, economic booms, palm oil plantations, mining, farming, illegal logging, illegal trades in wild babies to supply tourist camps, expanding train networks and electricity reaching remote villages for the first time.

Proportionally, Asia’s elephants are being wiped out at a similarly terrifying rate to their African cousins. Their population has experienced a 90% decline in past 100 years and a rough calculation suggests that as much as 95% of their original habitat has been lost over the same period. As few as 25,000 remain in the wild scattered between 13 countries.

Classed as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN (African elephants by contrast are ‘Vulnerable’), in many countries populations are hanging-on by a thread: Vietnam is down to just 70 animals, Nepal around 100, Bhutan perhaps as many as 250 and Laos, whose name ironically means ‘land of a million elephants’ is dwindling at around 500 animals. 

Internationally their plight has been neglected – there is currently no official Action Plan to coordinate efforts between the range states, a fundamental document long overdue. By contrast the African range states put theirs together back in 2010, following an initial decision to do so in 2007. Likewise the agenda for the upcoming CITES conference - hosted in Bangkok – is dominated by African poaching issues, with Thailand’s illegal trade in live wild caught elephants from Myanmar struggling to make it onto the agenda. 

The plight of the Asian elephant is one of the greatest wildlife stories of our time. In the face of relentless human encroachment, there is only one animal big enough and strong enough to fight back – stressed and hungry Asian elephants are now seen ‘raiding’ farmers crops, draining locally brewed rice wine supplies, trampling villages and in some cases charging on-coming trains whose route slices though their habitat. The psyche of this gentle herbivore, revered in the East as a God, is being gradually altered into a dangerous, aggressive animal; one that is not going to give up easily.

The solutions are all out there however – the creation of ‘elephant corridors’ – a concept pioneered by The Wildlife Trust of India and backed by a number of international NGOs, is gaining traction. Calls for a coordinated Action Plan are getting louder. Innovative railway programs and full scale landscape approaches to human- elephant conflict are underway. But the lack of knowledge and appreciation for Asian elephants is a significant threat to their long-term survival. This lack of awareness is preventing pressure building and keeping government monies locked away for other projects.

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This article was edited by Lorna Howarth, a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:

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