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Conserving Asia's Wild Elephants
by Meenakshi Nagendran, Ph.D., Peter Clyne, and Heidi Riddle
Photo Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society
Large herds of elephants once roamed freely throughout Asia's tropical forests and grasslands. Today, fewer than 40,000 remain. Like African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) have for centuries been hunted for their ivory tusks—a sought after canvas for art and jewelry. The demand for ivory has led to devastating declines in the number of these giant animals, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The Asian elephant was first included in Appendix 1 of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1975, and was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1976. Because of its status under CITES and the ESA, commercial trade of the species and its parts and products is prohibited. Still, illegal poaching for ivory and other body parts occurs through its range, due to demand from East Asian markets for jewelry and traditional medicine. And with less room to roam than ever before, as expanding human populations convert land for agriculture and other uses, the species' future has grown even more uncertain.
In 1997, the U.S. Congress passed the Asian Elephant Conservation Act, which created the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund (AsECF) that supports conservation programs to help ensure the long-term survival of the species in the wild. The reversal of fortunes for the species in Thailand and western Indonesia, as a result of these on-the-ground conservation efforts carried out by AsECF and partners, is extremely encouraging.
Anti-Poaching in Thailand
As primary forests are converted to agricultural land, Asian elephants are under increasing pressure from human settlements. One of the largest remaining continuous elephant habitats in Asia is the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site of western Thailand—a series of three contiguous protected areas that cover nearly 2,400 square miles (3,800 square kilometers). This area is known as the Western Forest Complex.
Photo Credit: Fauna and Flora International
To address the threat of poaching, the Wildlife Conservation Society, with support from the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund (AsECF), is working with the Thailand government to improve the quality and extent of anti-poaching ranger patrols in the complex. This support has taken the form of training in field patrol techniques and in a software program used to collect and analyze range patrol data to help guide upcoming ranger patrols. The AsECF also supports the purchase of equipment such as global positioning system (GPS) units, uniforms and camping gear, as well as rations patrol teams while they are out in the field.
With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners, patrol coverage has reached the highest quality in the world, covering the entire Western Forest Complex. Poachers are now routinely captured, and a number of indicators such as numbers of snares encountered, poaching camps encountered, or gunshots heard demonstrates that the threat of poaching has significantly decreased.
Captive Elephants Working for Conservation in Sumatra
Like Thailand, Indonesia is rapidly losing its forest cover as land is converted to large-scale agricultural plantations. As habitats contract and human populations expand, people and elephants are increasingly coming into contact with each other. In response to escalating human-elephant conflict in the 1980s, the Indonesian Directorate General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation ordered the capture of wild problem elephants for placement in Elephant Training Centers, later renamed Elephant Conservation Centers (ECCs), established in six provinces throughout Sumatra. Unfortunately, the camps were unable to demonstrate their role in the global effort to conserve elephants in their natural habitat, which was part of their original purpose. Several hundred elephants were captured, many of which died during the capture and initial training process. In addition, the centers became overcrowded because they lacked the funding and the management techniques necessary to properly house and care for those elephants that survived.
Photo Credit: International Elephant Foundation
With support from the AsECF, Fauna and Flora International and the International Elephant Foundation developed the Conservation Response Unit (CRU) concept to mitigate human-elephant conflict, reduce wildlife crime activities in the important elephant habitat through forest patrol and monitoring, raise awareness among local people of the importance of conserving elephants and their habitat, and establish community-based ecotourism to ensure long-term financial sustainability.
The CRU model uses once neglected captive elephants and their mahouts, or caretakers, for direct field-based conservation interventions to support the conservation of the species and its habitat, and achieve positive outcomes for both elephants and people. Each post conducts monthly patrols, during which team members record sightings or evidence of illegal activities, human-wildlife conflicts, and wildlife presence. Elephants play an important role by providing transportation during forest monitoring and patrol activities, gaining local community interest during awareness events, and driving away crop raiding wild elephants when conflict incidents arise.
Communities in these critical conservation areas are exposed to elephants in a positive context through their physical presence while passing through villages on patrols. Now seen as an important resource, local communities, decision-makers, and other stakeholders are focusing greater attention on protecting wild elephants and the forests in which they live. This model has also brought attention to the importance of mahouts and their need to be knowledgeable and capable. The continued presence of the CRU posts will ensure that human-elephant conflict issues do not create animosity in the local communities.
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