by Prajna Chowta
"News from India" cultural magazine of the Embassy of India, Paris, 2003

The Old Elephant Route

It is impossible to imagine India without elephants, as long as this fascinating animal species captivates the popular imagination. Nevertheless, the artificial presence of elephants in prominent tourist places like Jaipur in Rajasthan, Guruvayur in Kerala or Bihar's shrouded jewels, Sonepur, mask the precarious situation of this endangered species in general. In fact, recent research indicates that there are all in all 50,000 elephants in entire Asia and specialists doubt if the species will survive in the coming centuries.

Since the 70's, the attention has been focused on the African elephant that continues to subsist even after a severe blow of systematic poaching used to nourish the ivory market. Today, there remain around 400,000 specimens. The trade in ivory has been banned by the CITES* and the attention of the public has evolved. The interdiction has altogether been beneficial for the species, but for the perverse effect of augmenting vertiginously the price of ivory in the clandestine market.

Recently, there were erroneous rumours about a supposed increase in the population of elephants in Africa, propagated by contingents interested in the commerce of ivory, to mollify the human conscience. The pressures exerted by countries consuming ivory, with Japan at its head, are calling into question the international accords. Presently, three countries in South Africa have been reauthorized to export ivory. Poaching has revived practically everywhere, including in Asia, refloating wild animal products in the illegal market, which in global importance is only second to drugs.

The Asian elephant is the poor, forgotten cousin. Never has it dominated the international attention. Never has it benefited from the same efforts of conservation. It is a species apart, related too far to the African elephant for the two species to reproduce between them. The Asian elephants' growth in this way is in grave danger of extinction. The population that survives in the wild at present is divided into thirteen countries of the South and Southeast Asia and the number of wild individuals is situated between 35,000 and 45,000, the largest portions are found in India and then Burma (Myanmar). Add to it something like 16,000 "domestic" elephants in Asia. The Asian elephant is actually classified amongst the most endangered species in the world.

Wild Elephant Population in Asia

Countries Minimal estimation Maximal estimation
Bhutan 60 150
Burma 5,000 6,000
Cambodia 1,000 2,000
China 250 350
India 20,000 24,000
Indonesia 2,500 4,500
Laos 1,000 3,000
Malaysia 800 1,000
Borneo 500 2,000
Nepal 50 85
Sri Lanka 2,500 3,000
Thailand 1,500 3,000
Vietnam 300 400
TOTAL 35,460 49485

The unique relationship between man and elephant in Asia goes back more than 5000 years, when elephants started being captured and trained for religious ceremonies, wars, parades, and as draught animals. No other animal has known this relation with man as always being effectively a wild species because the breeding of elephants in captivity has always had no real continuity in success.
In ancient Hindu texts there are a numerous references to elephants and Ganesha, the god with a head of an elephant, is revered throughout India. The white elephant has a particular significance for Buddhists all over Asia. In Chinese culture, the elephant played a particular role along the centuries in its folklore, in games, pageantry and medicine.

Along the centuries, the Asian elephant was very important from an economical point of view, notably in forest operations, a practise that was developed on a grand scale during the British period. The Bombay Burma Teak Corporation had employed around 6,000 elephants all over the Indian sub-continent and in Burma. The exploitation of wood with the help of elephants have had to pay a heavy tribute towards the species, just as recently, it was defended as a method that has the least impact on the forest during selective extraction, which is not the case with modern machines. But the final reasoning came in 1994, when the Supreme Court pronounced its judgement on the cessation of this industry and banned the exploitation of timber in the entire country. The fragments from the immense habitat of Asian elephant have at present a chance to be preserved in India, which is not the case in Burma, where this practise is pursued at an unleashed rhythm.

Wild Elephants

Nowadays, biologists have realised that the elephant appears to be the keystone in the ecology of the forest it occupies. Its size and its social behaviour helps the elephant cover long distances and has acclimatized to a variety of habitats that offers a refuge to a multitude of other species. Multiple vegetal species can only flourish in effect to their genus pattern; certain can only reproduce if passed once through the digestive system of an elephant, the hard endocarp of the seed splits and germinates in the fresh dung. So, the elephants' population prosperity is an infallible barometer to the prosperity of other animal, vegetal species, the forests, flowing water, and in complete balance to the ecosystem that they are a part of.

In recent decline the difference between the African elephant is due to the poaching of its ivory on a grand scale, and the Asian elephant is that it is subjected to other threats very difficult to overcome. They live in regions amongst the most populated in the world. The growth in the human population and the pressures corresponding to their natural habitat, wild or systematic clearing for agriculture, are the causes for the dramatic losses of wooded areas. As a consequence, elephants and humans are in direct competition for the same natural resources. As a result of the degradation and the discontinuity of the forests, the population of Asian elephants is highly fragmented and this fragmentation augments the risk of extinction by geographic zone.

Poaching of ivory also prevails in Asia, touching essentially the males who are the sole possessors of tusks. The Asian ivory is mixed into the stocks of ivory from Africa, and once the tusks are separated from the animal, it is difficult to distinguish the origin. The grave consequence of poaching in Asia is the imbalance in the rapport of numbers between male and female. In certain reserves, the ratio of one male is to five females is thrown off balance and encourages a low total in reproduction.

Wild Elephants

The destiny of the elephants stirs up at the same time passion and despair. For those who search to understand the situation, a map with South Asia political frontiers is blurred to leave a place we can then call, "The Elephant Nation".

It was only a couple of centuries ago that elephants could roam around freely, in a continuous wild territory, stretching from Vietnam, passing through the foothills of the Himalayas unto the south of India. Wars, political tumults, increased occupation of their territories by human beings have fragmented these ancient migratory routes of elephants, and as of now, the largest wild populations are situated in one part between Assam and the north of Burma, and the other part in the south of India.

The conservation of wild species is as always a subject of preoccupation in India, where there are a chosen brilliant biologists and zoologists. In spite of the immense human population, our country possesses the largest population of elephants and tigers. Nevertheless, the efforts seem to be paying off once again, sometimes on the field, and through public information."

* CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - based in the Swiss and have signatories from 162 countries in the world. CITES Website.

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