Asian Elephant Specialist Group Meeting, 2018 – finding solutions to Asia’s elephant crises

AsESG group photo
Members assemble for the 9th Asian Elephant Specialist Group meeting in Bangkok

As the principle funder and initiator of two key sessions – DNA databases and the illegal trade in Asian elephants - Elephant Family had a strong presence at the 9th IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) meeting in Bangkok in April 2018. This forum is the most important global gathering of researchers and field conservationists working on behalf of Asian elephants. It brings together 100 experts from all 13 range-state countries, as well as leaders of associated specialist groups such as those that focus on human-wildlife conflict and transport, providing the opportunity for collaboration, discussion and action on how best to tackle the unprecedented pressures on Asia’s elephants. 

In his opening address, Dr T P Singh, IUCN Asia Deputy Regional Director said:  “The conservation status of Asian elephants remains precarious - threats continue to grow as Asia develops, putting pressure on forest habitats; human elephant conflict continues across range states, and the skin trade is becoming a major issue.”

These themes were among the many subjects discussed during the three day programme.
The development of Asia was brought into sharp focus by Rob Ament of the IUCN Connectivity and Transport Specialist Group which is looking at connectivity outside protected areas.

“By 2050 there are projected to be 25 million kilometers of new roads, 95% in developing countries. Our role is to work with the AsESG and the 900 people from 70 countries who are now contributing to the ‘Areas of Connectivity Conservation’ draft to look at how we mitigate the impact of such extensive development on wildlife,” he said. 

Also on the agenda was the crisis created by the influx of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh. This rapid, mass migration of people has placed overwhelming pressure on the country’s critically endangered elephant population in the border area and 12 people have already lost their lives to elephants that have lived there for millennia. With the monsoon months approaching there are fears for the safety of both refugees and elephants, leading the Bangladesh representative to appeal for support from delegates.

“Being able to call on expert support and to open collaborative discussion is one of the major benefits of this meeting,” said Elephant Family’s acting Director of Conservation Belinda Stewart-Cox who organised and then led the first session in the AsESG’s history dedicated to the illegal wildlife trade. Her presentation on Elephant Family’s investigative report into the supply chain of Asian elephant skin followed presentations from WWF and WCS documenting the rise in poaching for skin in Myanmar. 

“Highlighting this disturbing issue began a dialogue with China that we hope will help curtail this transnational crime before it becomes the next wildlife crisis,” added Belinda.

Working Groups also brought specialists together to collaborate on:
• Arresting the decline of elephant populations in Vietnam
• Developing guidelines for mitigating human-elephant conflict
• Mapping the distribution of Asian elephants across range states
• Developing guidelines for rehabilitating captive elephants in the wild for restocking options
• Developing guidelines for the welfare & management of elephants used in tourism
• The management and care of captive elephants in musth
• The Sabah elephant conservation action plan (Malaysia)
• The Sumatra elephant conservation action plan (Indonesia)
• Developing guidelines for creating artificial water holes in elephant habitats
• Strengthening MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants)

Presentations by each range state also focused on country-specific issues affecting vulnerable elephant populations across Asia.

“The survival of Asia’s elephants has reached a critical point but this meeting of the AsESG is helping to create not only dialogue but solutions as we work together to save the species,” said Vivek Menon, chair of the AsESG. Vivek, who has been instrumental in galvanizing the group to ensure a positive and results-driven forum, looked forward to convening the next meeting at the end of 2019.

Elephant Family is hugely proud to support the AsESG and would like to thank Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and the Eranda Rothschild Foundation for generously supporting this work.