The Asian elephant is declining throughout its range, with no more than 30,000 elephants left in the forests of Asia. In fact, it is thought that this current figure is less than one tenth of the population of the Asian elephant’s African cousin.
Habitat loss and degradation are leading to populations of Asian elephants becoming fragmented in their environment. As their habitat shrinks, elephants and humans come into conflict as elephants raid crop fields and destroy homes and property. This human-elephant conflict is thought to be the leading cause of elephants being killed in the wild.
But human-elephant conflict isn’t the only cause of declining Asian elephant populations. The threat of poaching and hunting of elephants for their tusks, which are highly sort after on the illegal black market, is another leading cause. Tackling these issues to help save the Asian elephant requires a holistic approach. The challenge facing most conservation programs in south-east Asia is to balance the needs of the wildlife and their habitat, as well as the socio-economic needs of the local communities.
Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors supports two on-the-ground elephant conservation programs. One is based in central and north Sumatra, while the other is located in the critical habitat regions of Cambodia. The forests within these regions represent some of the largest continuous blocks of habitat and last remaining stronghold for the Asian elephant in the wild.
The programs in Sumatra and Cambodia are financially supported through Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors’ partnership with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and both of these programs adopt similar strategies to help tackle the many issues elephants face. The Conservation Response Units (CRUs) in Sumatra and the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group (CEGG) in Cambodia work with and engage local communities, giving them the tools and knowledge required to live alongside the elephant.
Field units work with villagers, showing them how to avoid conflict with elephants and how best to mitigate against it when it does occur. Education is also helping to develop more sustainable practices for farmers, and has meant that local communities have had to encroach less on the forest, and at the same time has helped to alleviate poverty, as alternative livelihoods are developed.
In particular, farmers have been shown how to make their land more productive, reducing the need to clear the forests. Better land use, planning, and other agricultural practices are also reducing human-elephant conflict. Villagers are trained in a range of techniques to humanely repel elephants that do happen to stray into farm land – chillies (the hot kind!) have proven to be a valuable tool and simple technique to reduce human-elephant conflict. Elephants dislike these hot peppers, which irritate their sensitive skin, and so farmers spread chilli powder on ropes that surround their fields, creating a barrier that the elephants will not cross.
The field units have also developed partnerships with local and national governments, as well as other key stakeholders and agencies, for better land use planning; effectively trying to protect the remaining forests from conversion into monocultures such as palm oil plantations.
Law enforcement, conducting regular forest patrols, and catching illegal loggers and poachers are all in a day’s work for the field units. In Sumatra, the CRUs have taken once-neglected captive elephants and utilised them as part of the program. The elephants that are part of the CRUs are given a good quality of life, and all their welfare needs are taken care of.
This group has also been responsible for setting up and funding several schools in rural areas. Children that are now in these schools are learning about the importance of their environment – some could not read or write until the program was established in their area. The children are also taught about elephant conservation and how to live with them in their environment.
These holistic strategies are not only helping to save the Asian elephant in the wild, but have helped to develop alternative livelihoods for the communities where both elephants and humans live.