Management and Conservation

Large herds of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) once roamed freely throughout Eurasia’s forests and grasslands, with historic populations extending from Turkey and Syria in the west, along the coasts of Iran and Pakistan, all the way across the continent to the eastern coast of China and north to the Yangtze River. Today Asian elephants remain in only 13 countries (range states), mostly in smaller, isolated populations. Sixty percent of the total population is in India, and comparatively large populations (>1,000 individuals) are found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. However, populations in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Laos, Nepal, and Vietnam number in the hundreds. While some of these small populations are considered relatively secure (Nepal, Bhutan), others are under serious threat (Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam) and the chances of long-term persistence of these populations is uncertain.   

The IUCN Red List classifies the Asian elephant as Endangered, which means that this species has a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future. The IUCN Red List also lists the Indonesian subspecies of Asian elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) as Critically Endangered, meaning that there is an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future; this is due to drastic population declines on the island of Sumatra caused by habitat loss, poaching, and human-elephant conflict. All wild and captive populations of Asian elephants are included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Species included in Appendix I are threatened with extinction and, therefore, international trade in specimens of these species is prohibited except in very exceptional cases (e.g., scientific research). Domestic trade within range states is regulated and governed by each sovereign nation’s laws and policies. 

Population estimates of wild Asian elephants range from 45,000 to 50,000 individuals, but this is a rough estimate, as it is exceedingly difficult to count low density populations of elephants dispersed across large areas and densely forested landscapes. Continued population declines are human-driven, caused by habitat loss and fragmentation, resulting in human-elephant conflict, poaching, and mortality from human infrastructure such as highways, canals, railways, roads, and electric power lines.  

Asian elephants face many threats in the wild, but habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary causes of their decline. All Asian elephant range countries are experiencing rapid human population growth. This growth in human population accelerates the destruction and conversion of natural forests, the principal habitat of Asian elephants, through intensive logging, clearing of forested land for agriculture, livestock grazing, and infrastructure development such as roads, irrigation canals, and electric power transmission lines. As the natural habitat of Asian elephants shrinks, elephants are forced to move through human-dominated landscapes where they encounter people, cars, trains, buildings, houses, wells, fences, orchards, plantations, and small and large agricultural fields. Across the range, Asian elephant habitat abuts or has been replaced with agricultural fields, plantations, and cultivated crops, such as oil palm, tea, coffee, banana, rice (paddy), and fruits and vegetables. Elephants find these crops very palatable and will not hesitate to eat what they find, while also trampling the fields and damaging harvested crop storage structures to get to these calorie-dense and delicious foods. Sometimes these food sources are local communities’ subsistence crops that, when damaged or eaten by elephants, can cause catastrophic financial losses to a family dependent on their harvest.  

Each year, more than 450 Asian elephant and 600 human deaths result from human-elephant conflict. Human injuries and fatalities regularly result when people attempt to scare elephants from their agricultural fields; encounter and surprise a wild elephant in the dark at night; try to drive an elephant away from their village or fields using firecrackers or guns; or just plain bad decision-making, such as taking a selfie with a wild elephant. Elephant injuries and fatalities result when people shoot them with guns, feed them explosives, poison, electrocute, or snare them. Asian elephants are also vulnerable and can die from several human and domesticated livestock pathogens (i.e., zoonotic diseases), such as tuberculosis, anthrax, rabies, and hemorrhagic septicemia. In addition to the losses caused by human-elephant conflict, each year many elephants are killed when they are hit by trains (India and Sri Lanka) or vehicles (Malaysia and Thailand), or poached for their ivory, skin, and other parts. 

The United States Congress passed the Asian Elephant Conservation Act in 1997, which establishes a fund for the protection of the Asian elephant and the conservation of its habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service serves as the implementing federal agency of the Act and stewards the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund grants program. The FWS recognizes the common goals and priorities of the 13 Asian elephant range state governments as stated in the Kathmandu Declaration for Asian Elephant Conservation and supports projects that promote conservation of Asian elephants and their habitats through:

  • enhancing cooperation and transboundary conservation of Asian elephants among the 13 range states,
  • promoting human-elephant coexistence,
  • addressing the root causes of human-elephant conflict,
  • ensuring effective law enforcement across the species’ range to prevent illegal killing and trafficking of live elephants, ivory, and other body parts,
  • protected area management,
  • applied research and monitoring,
  • demand reduction for ivory and other body parts,
  • development and implementation of national Asian elephant conservation action plans, and
  • compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and other relevant laws and treaties. 

Our Services

Our Projects and Research

Past project highlights include:

Nepal: Minimizing human-elephant conflict through scientific management and community engagement. Conducted awareness-raising programs and provided alternative livelihood options. Operationalized rapid response team to manage conflict incidents and conducted human elephant co-existence (HECx) related awareness activities in Nepal’s Western Terai Landscape.

Thailand: Empowered wildlife guardians in Thailand's forgotten parks by providing lasting protection for elephants and their habitat through forest ranger training and community support in the Dong Phayayen Khao Yai forest complex.

Vietnam and Cambodia: Established trans-boundary cooperation on law enforcement and protected area management between Vietnam and Cambodia in the Eastern Plains Landscape for Asian elephant and tiger conservation.

Indonesia: Provided training and regional workshops for veterinarians in Banda Aceh to improve the care of captive elephants, conserve wild elephants and learn about diseases affecting wild elephants.