World Elephant Day 2018 - raising awareness for Asia's forgotten elephants

Sunday, 12th August

For too long, Asia's elephants have struggled in the shadow of their African cousins. While the world focuses on the bloody ivory wars, a desperate fight for survival continues almost unnoticed outside Asia.

With about one tenth the population of their African counterparts, Asia's elephants are struggling to survive in an increasingly crowded world. Incredibly, even though there are as few as 45,000 spread across 13 range states, 20% of the world’s human population are said to live in close proximity to a wild Asian elephant. Yet it is this close proximity to people that is leading to the loss of both human and elephant lives.

Between January and July this year, 63 elephant deaths have been reported in Asia’s press. One elephant was shot for feeding on palm oil - leaving her calf orphaned; four were killed by explosives hidden in fruit by plantation owners; three fell into uncovered wells; three were poisoned; two were killed by snares; and two died from ingesting plastic as they scavenged for food on a waste site. But most of the casualties were caused by trains and power lines.

Up to July, 27 elephants have died on India's railways this year. In one tragic incident, five elephants were killed by a single train in Assam.  With many more linear infrastructures and associated developments being planned across Asia, the threat to elephants - in fact to all wildlife - from roads and railways that cut across their traditional migratory paths is increasing.

"There has been some good news," says Elephant Family's acting Head of Conservation, Belinda Stewart-Cox. "Earlier this year, a proposed new railway line in southern India was deemed too environmentally damaging and the plans were scrapped. It would have ripped through one of the elephant corridors that we worked so hard to secure."

It is a small but significant victory in an embattled landscape.

By 2050, there will be an estimated 25 million kilometers of new road built largely across developing countries. Recognizing the threat these infrastructure plans pose, Elephant Family is supporting the work of the Asian Elephant Transport Working Group.

“This group aims to ensure that habitat connectivity and wildlife-friendly features are included in all infrastructure construction,” explains Belinda Stewart-Cox. “The group will develop internationally recognised guidelines for governments and financial investment institutions, and will provide expertise, support, case studies and technical information. They will also leverage their leadership within IUCN’s existing working groups on habitat connectivity and transport to promote these recommended best practices at the highest level: targets and guidelines will be prepared in good time for inclusion in the next Convention on Biodiversity conference in 2020.”

Ensuring that infrastructure development plans throughout Asia include effective corridors for wildlife between key habitats is essential for Asia’s wildlife to have a sustainable future.

Another major cause of elephant deaths in Asia in the first half of this year was electrocution with 21 elephants being killed by low hanging or sagging power lines. Thanks to the diligent monitoring of power lines and illegal wire traps by the Wildlife Society of Odisha (WSO), information is regularly sent to the local Forest Department to demand action. As result no elephant in Odisha has died from electrocution in the last three years. The WSO team also works hard to install simple but highly effective barriers to stop large mammals falling into open wells on agricultural land.  For the safety of elephants, it is vital that we keep funding, and replicating, this work across the continent.

These are just some of the positive steps that Elephant Family and its conservation partners are taking to protect Asia’s elephants from the daily threats they face. But there is still more to do.

In Myanmar (the country identified by our investigative report ‘Skinned’ as the primary source of wild elephants poached for the illegal skin trade), a new project is already providing positive feedback in a troubled country.

Courtesy of Compass Films

In the course of the project, education teams will reach over 12,000 families in key areas for elephants and biodiversity, giving them the knowledge and skills they need to conserve their natural resources and avoid conflict with elephants, whether in the forest or in their fields.

“Our aim is for elephants to be seen as an ecological asset rather than an economic risk, so understanding is key,” adds Stewart-Cox. “What’s more, this seems to be paying off. In recent months, villagers who have engaged with the teams are those that have shopped elephant poachers to the authorities.”

You can read more about the project here

“World Elephant Day provides a positive opportunity to raise awareness for the protection of Asia’s elephants and their habitats,” adds Elephant Family’s Head of Communications, Vicky Flynn. “Although we know that most press coverage will focus on Africa’s giants, we will keep pushing for Asia’s elephants to get their fair share of publicity, raising funds and awareness for their protection and to get them firmly onto the global conservation agenda later in the year at the CITES Standing Committee and at the IWT Conference in London.”

You can help Elephant Family champion Asia’s elephants too by spreading the word on World Elephant Day. Or by making a donation to support our work here