The endangered Asiatic or Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) are distributed across the Indian subcontinent in Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh; in south China (Yunnan), and SE Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Malay Peninsula) represents one of the largest populations of wild breeding populations outside the continent of Africa. Two other sub species of Asiatic elephants are also known, namely the endangered Ceylonese or Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) endemic to the island of Sri Lanka and the critically endangered Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) inhabiting the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The Sri Lankan sub species is closely related to the Indian sub species and is reported to have evolved from the later. The Sumatran sub species is closely related to the population stocks in the adjoining SE Asian nations. Although, the elephant populations have shown drastic reduction in almost all the subcontinent nations, south China and SE Asia; however, there has been some encouraging reports of increasing elephant populations in the southern and eastern parts of India. Once the gentle giants that roamed freely throughout the subcontinent from the Himalayan foothills across the vast river plains to the tropical forests of peninsular India has now been restricted only to specific reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries and biological parks.
The wild Indian elephant herds dominated the fertile grasslands of the Ganges-Brahmaputra plains in the east to the dense bamboo forests of the NE India and Myanmar in the west extending to the plains and hills of Bangladesh; and the lush, virgin, tropical forests of SE Asia. Unfortunately, due to severe anthropogenic pressures, the ancient migration corridors and the habitats of wild elephants have been either destroyed, altered or illegally encroached and/or modified for various commercial industrial, agricultural and infrastructural purposes depleting premier foraging and breeding areas. As a consequence, direct human-elephant conflicts (HECs) have been increasing throughout the subcontinent and are a major concern for the future conservation of Asiatic elephants. Due to such indiscriminate habitat encroachment, destruction and fragmentation along with blockade of the traditional elephant migration corridors across different provinces, states or districts both within a specific nation or adjoining nations of the subcontinent turned detrimental for the local elephant populations over the past four decades. Furthermore, the disruption, restriction and obstruction of the free movements and migrations of elephants along international border and border check posts of the adjoining subcontinent countries due to stringent security measures adopted by border security forces have further introduced adverse changes in the breeding, foraging and ecological connectivity of the elephant populations across either side of international borders.
Poaching, unfortunate accidents for elephants that have strayed into unguarded railway tracks passing through premier elephant habitats or while crossing busy national and international highways, intentional and/or accidental electrocutions of elephants venturing into agricultural fields, fruit orchards or adjoining villages have been resulting in repeated elephant deaths in the subcontinent. The forest departments and elephant conservation units have been failing to restrict elephant deaths and serious human-elephant conflicts due to lack of necessary funding, training, experience and any comprehensive, long term, modern, scientific, conservation management plan for the protection of the unfortunate Asiatic elephants. In spite of all the odds and severe anthropogenic pressure, the elephant population density in some corners of India has increased considerably compared to other subcontinent countries; thanks to the efforts of local forest departments, conservation organizations and dedicated NGOs working for elephant conservation and increasing awareness among rural communities for the protection and conservation of the local elephant populations. However, the overall situation is not promising for the Asiatic elephants in the subcontinent region due to the above mentioned factors impacting their population. Recently an attempt for introducing for immuno-contraception of elephants to restrict their populations was rejected by a higher court of India. The situation is a little better in Bhutan and India compared to the adjoining Asian nations having elephant populations.
The elephant populations of Nepal and Bangladesh have also been drastically reduced; with elephants now available in some isolated pockets in the Chittagong hill districts of Bangladesh and in small pockets in the Terai plains of Nepal. The elephant populations of neighboring south China (Yunnan) and Myanmar have also been drastically impacted due to negative anthropogenic interventions and the mass destruction of the lush green and dense bamboo forests that served as excellent elephant habitats in the past has been aggressively destroyed over past few decades for developmental and infrastructural purposes. The situation of Asiatic elephants in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Malay Peninsula is also not encouraging due to similar reasons with serious negative impacts on the resident wild elephant populations.
The endemic Sri Lankan elephant has been reduced to almost half the original island population due to antagonistic anthropogenic interaction and destruction of their habitats. The worst situation is reported for the Sumatran subspecies with over 80% loss of original population in the Indonesian island of Sumatra as a result of poor eco-sociological engagement with local islanders, lack of credible eco-environmental conservation efforts, habitat encroachments and rampart poaching for the tusks. The illegal black markets are operational in China and SE Asia (predominantly Vietnam) from where they find ways to the rich markets of the Far East, West Asia, mainland Europe, Australia and North America and other parts of the world. The international routes of elephant tusk trafficking in Asia runs through India across Nepal and Bhutan into south China; and across India via Bangladesh and Myanmar to south China, Hong Kong and SE Asia.
There is an absolute need for promoting eco-environmental development, opportunities and dialogues advocating for the conservation of Asiatic elephants in all the subcontinent nations (Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), south China as well as adjoining SE Asian countries that still have première elephant habitats like Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Malaysia. Lack of eco-sociological engagement between local human populations and wildlife such as Asiatic elephants is one of the root causes for the rapid depletion of elephant population as it harbors misunderstanding and mistrust in the traditional human-animal interactions in Asia that has lasted from time immemorial. All the Asian nations with wild Asiatic elephant populations must develop comprehensive Joint Elephant Conservation Program (JECP) to efficiently conserve all the three different sub species by cooperating, coordinating, sharing and exchanging relevant data, experiences and information among themselves. Radio collared members of different herds must be properly tracked and recorded to detect elephant movements across national as well as trans boundary or international elephant migration corridors and detailed observation of all elephant behavior should be thoroughly recorded. Intelligence reports on illegal wildlife market, trafficking routes, agents, suspicious under ground business enterprises, poachers and/or poaching units and kingpins should be cautiously exchanged between the nations with wild elephant populations.
Recently several insurgent groups have been found to take refuge in prime wildlife habitats across South and SE Asia to avoid persecution form respective security agencies and have taken to poaching as fund raising opportunity for conducting their covert activities. This has been a serious concern for elephant conservation across Asia and must be seriously addressed by all the impacted nations. Stringent security measures of the protected habitat and elephant migration corridors will be important together with removing obstacles on the corridors and eradiation of illegal encroachments need to be judiciously done under a master conservation plan. It will be important to include all remote rural communities, fringe dwellers and forest residents within and around important elephant habitats as stakeholders in the process of conservation. It will be also necessary that socio-economic development of the people living around elephant habitats are also addressed; since without eco-sociological development opportunities for the people adjoining elephant habitats no successful long term conservation success could be achieved.
The Government of India has established elephant shelters for the sick and old elephants in the country. My sincere thanks to the Government for also banning the trade on endangered Indian elephants in the wildlife markets of Sonepur in Bihar. It will be also important take initiatives in slowly banning the buying, donating, holding and caging of elephants in the temples of South India as apart of a centuries old socio-religious custom. This is a not an acceptable practice in a new millennium involving an endangered wildlife species and people need to understand that. Supporting superstitions and in appropriate activities by playing with an endangered species of wildlife in the name of religion cannot be tolerated. Constant campaign and public education need to be initiated to build general consensus and public opinion against this age old tradition. It is also important for the lawmakers in India to take this issue to the parliament for a healthy debate.
Mass awareness campaigns for educating general public, school kids and rural communities regarding elephant conservation, dark side of poaching and avoiding use of any wildlife products or parts to be seriously conducted throughout the year. Border security agencies of Asian nations sharing common boundaries and with elephant migration corridors and wildlife trafficking routes must cooperate and coordinate for reducing poaching, trafficking and facilitating elephant movements. A formal treaty agreement between SAARC and ASEAN economic blocks regarding joint initiatives and cooperation on wildlife conservation and environment protection could benefit all the concerned nations and help significantly in Asiatic elephant conservation. It will be important to have additional funding for the elephant conservation projects across these nations; along with advanced training of forest officials, forest guards, conservators and border security agencies with modern approaches for wildlife conservation, management, survey and protection. A coordinated and collaborative approach from an international perspective and regional coordination can play a significant role in the long term conservation of the majestic sub species of the Asiatic elephants.
The human-elephant conflict highlights a complex eco-environmental issue plaguing the whole Asian continent including the Indian subcontinent. The funding for conservation and increased security measures are certainly a big boost towards comprehensive conservation effort; however, another significant yet neglected eco-sociological aspect for successful conservation will involve improving the socio-economic conditions of the people living in and around premier elephant habitats. Most remote rural communities, fringe dwellers and forest residents live their life under abject poverty being dependent on the scanty forest resources for their daily sustenance; and are vulnerable to be exploited by poaching and wildlife trafficking groups. Unless this anthropogenic issue is included in the wildlife mitigation and biodiversity conservation base equation; none of the efforts mentioned are ever going to be successful from a long term perspective. To protect endangered elephants and to minimize human-elephant conflicts; the eco-sociological perspective or the human factor needs to be made an important stakeholder in the process of successful elephant conservation.