The major issues for the decline in the number of elephants are Poaching, Habitat loss, Human-elephant conflict and Mistreatment in captivity.
"Baby elephants are so innocent. Please don't separate them from their mothers."
The decline in Elephant Population
Elephant numbers have reportedly declined by 62% over the last decade. Some estimates say they could be mostly exterminated by the end of the next decade if urgent protective actions are not undertaken. An estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts, leaving only 400,000 remainings. An insatiable lust for ivory in Asia makes the illegal ivory trade extremely profitable and has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants. As an example, it has been posited that between 2010 and 2014, the price of ivory in China tripled, driving illicit poaching through the roof. If the elephants are to survive, the demand for ivory must be eliminated. As of 2011, the world was losing more elephants than the population could reproduce, threatening the future of elephants across their range. World Elephant Day was therefore created to raise awareness on the plight of this majestic and ecologically important species.
1) Elephant poaching. Why do people poach elephants?
Both African and Asian Elephants are threatened in the wild due to poaching for ivory and capturing wild animals for the captive wildlife industry, including zoos and circuses. In Asia, illicit capture of wild elephants is still taking place in countries like India, Thailand and Myanmar, adding pressure to already threatened wild populations. In addition, there is cross border trade in live wild-caught elephants; for example, there have been cases reported of live elephants being smuggled from India to Nepal. Many wild-caught elephants in Asia end up in zoos and circuses and fall victim to the wildlife entertainment industry. In Africa, elephant calves are captured from culling operations and sent to a lifetime of captivity in zoos abroad, including Pakistan and China. In India, the Asian Elephant is protected as a Schedule I animal under the Wildlife Protection Act and named the National Heritage Animal Of India in 2010. These protections have been accorded to elephants to strengthen their status in the wild and prevent poaching.
Elephants are increasingly being driven out of their habitats due to anthropogenic pressure. Humans are encroaching traditional elephant habitats for farming and infrastructural development, which leaves elephants with small patches of disconnected land. When human incursion occurs in a human habitat where elephants are used to roaming, they become a target for crop-raiding by hungry elephants. A year’s crop can be wiped out in a single night, creating understandable resentment among communities dependent on crops for a living. Both farmers and elephants have been wounded or killed in the conflict that ensues. Pressure from livestock grazing and industrial development in elephant rangeland are increasing, impacting the amount of food available for elephants and increasing the chances of people in proximity being attacked by nervous elephants. In addition, increasing the human population brings infrastructure development. Roads, railways, pipelines, factories, and human settlements can form barriers to wildlife movements, fragmenting habitats into ever smaller patches. Without corridors to link these islands of isolated habitat, herds can have trouble reaching food and water. They may also be separated from their compatriots, decreasing their socializing and breeding opportunities. This is not healthy for the survival of elephants in the long run in both Asia and Africa. Loss of habitat increases conflict, leading to the capture or killing of elephants. Some of the captured elephants end up in unscrupulous zoos and circuses where they spend a lifetime performing tricks or giving rides.
3) Human-elephant conflict
In June 2020, a pregnant wild elephant in Kerala’s Silent Valley National Park died after reportedly a pineapple filled with crackers offered by a man exploded in her mouth when she chomped on it. The incident drew media attention, and heated debates and discussions on elephant-human conflict again came to the fore. However, after the initial hullabaloo, the dust settled down, and the conflict continues to take a toll as it has been doing as usual.
In India, it has been reported that every day, on average, one person — mostly a farmer — is killed in a human-elephant conflict. Of the total deaths due to human-elephant conflict in the last six years, 48 per cent have been from Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand. These three states, along with Assam, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, have accounted for 85 per cent of the total deaths due to human-elephant deaths. Farmers across the elephant range states have complained of wild elephants destroying their crops, leading to heavy economic losses. In addition, they say there is an increase in the number of elephants entering into human habitation.
However, research suggests that human settlement — and the resulting biotic pressure — and linear infrastructures such as roads, railway lines, canals, and encroachments into corridor areas are key reasons for elephants entering human settlements.
The creation of wildlife corridors is an important step in mitigating human-elephant conflict and preventing the capture of conflict elephants that could end up in abusive captive situations, including private custody and riding for entertainment or wildlife tourism.
India has around 27,000 wild elephants, and as per the records of MoEF&CC, there are 2,675 captive elephants in India. Among these, 1821 are reportedly in private custody, whilst the rest are under the care of the Forest Department of various states. Individuals own captive elephants in private custody, and some by institutions like temples and private owners who keep elephants as status symbols.
In the past twenty years, there has been a flood of publications suggesting elephants, both African and Asian, are not well suited to lives in captivity and die young under human custody. Whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, all elephants used for close tourist contact such as riding have undergone a traumatic training method known as the ‘crush’. This involves separating young elephant calves from their mother, keeping them in isolation, depriving them of food and water, and in many cases beating them repeatedly until they are broken and can be controlled by fear. When tourists support riding venues, they support this cruelty behind the scenes and help the industry thrive. Across Asia, there are over 3,800 captive elephants exploited for tourist entertainment in 357 camps. According to the third edition of our report, Elephants, Thailand is home to three-quarters of these elephants and has seen a shocking 70% increase in their number in just 10 years. Not commodities. The study compares research into elephant tourism which spans a decade, assessing venues across Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The findings are horrifying, revealing that 2,390 (63%) elephants are suffering in severely dire conditions at 357 venues across the countries studied, and of those, just 279 (7%) elephants are kept in high-welfare venues. The elephants at Amer fort in Jaipur in Rajasthan in India are also mistreated, with most of them suffering from foot problems and eye disorders. Animal rights and animal welfare groups, and conservation groups have been highlighting mistreatment and abuse of captive elephants in Jaipur and calling for the prevailing situation to end.