Survival in the Wild
While the increased amount of exposure in the media is heightening the public’s awareness about the poaching crisis, there are also other imminent issues facing elephants in the wild. Outside of poaching, habitat loss and human elephant conflict (HEC) are the other leading causes of elephant suffering in the wild. It begs the question – how do we live in harmony with nature, while respecting the environment which gives life to us all and why should we care?
Habitat loss devastates elephant populations
Habitat loss isolates many wild elephant populations, with ancient migratory routes cut off by human settlements. Habitat loss and degradation also increases confrontations between elephants and people, often leading to deaths on both sides. Most elephant ranges still extend outside protected areas, and the rapid growth of human populations and the extension of agriculture into rangelands and forests formerly considered unsuitable for farming mean that large areas are now permanently off-limits for elephants.
Fierce competition for living space has resulted in human suffering, a dramatic loss of forest cover, and reduced Asian elephant numbers to between 41,410 and 52,345 animals in the wild.
Most of the national parks and reserves where elephants live 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 400 people are killed by elephants each year.
Incidents of elephants raiding crops and villages are on the rise. This causes loss to human property and, sometimes, human lives. Retaliation by villagers often results in the killing of these elephants. Experts already consider such confrontations to be the leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia.
The scarcity of food sources has led elephants in Sri Lanka to seek food in dump sites, where they have been observed eating garbage and other waste material.
Long established elephant corridors are increasingly being cut into with human development including the incursion of resorts.
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 illegal wildlife trade and logging still persists. And recently protection for wild Indian elephants suffered a setback with the amendment of the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act that allows capture for “religious or any other purpose”.
Zimbabwe has sold 140 baby elephants to China.
Unfortunately, crude capture methods have led to a high mortality level. , With 1 in 3 Asian elephants in captivity, attention needs to be paid to improved care and, where appropriate, transfer to sanctuary or reintroduction of individuals into the wild.
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.
The environmental impact – what is a keystone species?
A keystone species, such as the African and Asian elephant, is a species that has a particularly large effect on an environment relative to its abundance. On the savannah, African elephants directly influence forest composition and density by pulling down trees, breaking up bushes, creating salt licks, digging waterholes, and forging trails. In this way, the elephant maintains an environment that is favorable for a large assortment of browsing and grazing animals. Many plant species have also evolved seeds that are dependent on passing through an elephant’s digestive tract before they can germinate; it is estimated that at least a third of West African tree species rely on elephants for seed dispersal and germination.
In the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, the Asian elephant is responsible for creating clearings and gaps in the canopy that encourage tree regeneration. Elephant feeding behavior frequently ensures that no one plant species is able to dominate the environment. By essentially engineering the plant and water systems around them, elephants not only affect plant ecosystems, but they also impact every other animal that depends on those plants, including carnivorous predators that prey on grazing herbivores.
Without elephants, habitats such as the African savannah and the Southeast Asian rainforest would look drastically different and wouldn’t be able to support nearly as many different species as they do now. Therefore, elephants play essential roles in maintaining biological diversity around the world!
Groups all over Asia and Africa are utilizing strategies such as: beehive fences, chili and tobacco-based deterrents to keep elephants out of fields; changing farming practices – making farms easier to defend; growing crops that elephants don’t like; outreach and education; improving oil palm plantation practices in Malaysia and Indonesia; and restoring degraded biological corridors to facilitate seasonal movement of elephants and other wildlife so that the animals don’t need to travel through human habitations and habitat management in protected areas.
Following the lead of research done by Dr. Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees Project, groups like I Left My Heart in Kenya have executed the use of bee hives in addition to chili pepper planting as deterrents to elephants, yielding highly successful results. And recently a new bee-free buzz box is being utilized in Africa and will soon be adapted in Asia.
Kenya:The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy created an underpass for elephants to pass through without being endangered by the busy traffic on the highway above.
The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary is Africa’s first community owned elephant sanctuary situated in Northern Kenya. The keepers are all from the indigenous Samburu community, and the orphaned calves, once rehabilitated, are released into the wild herds adjoining Retiti. This movement is growing economies and transforming lives.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was established 45 years ago and is best known for its Orphans' Project, the first elephant orphan rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.
Zambia: The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation is a wildlife conservation charity funding key conservation projects across Africa and Asia. It established Zambia’s first Elephant Orphanage to rescue, rehabilitate and release the innocent victims of ivory poaching.
Zimbabwe: Wild is Life Sanctuary rescues, rehabilitates and rewilds orphaned and injured elephants and other animals.
Thailand: Udalawalawe Elephant Transit Home rehabilitates and releases isolated baby elephants to the wild.
India: A novel approach, talk to the elephants The Indian state of Maharashtra has decided to create dedicated corridors for elephants in over 100 villages. To assist in this project, the state government has appointed a team of elephant communicators to work with villagers and forest officials to help solve the conflicts between humans and elephants. It is showing promising signs of success.
China: Compensation for crop loss. In the past 10 years, Yunnan has paid a total of 173 million yuan for losses caused by Asian elephants.
Food courts. Chinese wildlife authorities have constructed a massive “food court” along established elephant migratory routes to provide food and water for wild elephants so they don’t raid farmers’ crops.
Solutions like these, implemented where elephants live, are the best and most effective way to address the many threats that wild elephants face. Keeping elephants in zoos, theme parks, or other entertainment venues does nothing to conserve these magnificent animals. Captivity only condemns elephants to the deprivations and diseases that are endemic to life in captivity.
So when zoos claim they are practicing conservation by confining elephants for life, know that for the conservation con that it is. The truth is despite the many threats to their survival, elephants belong in their native lands, free to travel the ancient migration routes of their ancestors, and live as the wild, far-roaming animals they were born to be.