Indian elephants, a subspecies of Asian elephants, have been considered endangered since 1986. While the Sumatran elephant and Sri Lankan elephant live only in the lowland forest of Sumatra and the dry zones of Sri Lanka, respectively, the Indian elephant has the most extensive range and represents the majority of the remaining elephants left on the Asian continent. Some experts consider the Bornean elephant—found exclusively on the island of Borneo—to be a fourth Asian elephant subspecies.
There are only an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Indian elephants left in the wild, and the global population is believed to be decreasing. This article discusses the threats Indian elephants face and what is being done to protect the remaining population.
The Indian elephant is mainly threatened by habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. The subspecies is also vulnerable to increased issues with human conflict and illegal poaching.
Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
Habitat loss is widely considered the biggest threat to Indian elephants. Recent economic growth and subsequent increased development in Asia are the main causes of this habitat loss.
From expanding human settlements and mining to converting land to plants and linear infrastructure, many activities can block migratory elephant routes and drive them into smaller subpopulations. When animals are forced into smaller pockets of populations, they risk losing genetic diversity and have a higher chance of dying from disease and natural disasters.
In India, elephants have faced a 70% population decline over the last 60 years. When accounting for climate change projections, scientists predict that the elephant population in the country could lose over 40% of its habitat by 2070.
As elephants lose their habitats to human settlements and development, interactions between humans and elephants also rise. Elephant populations, especially those living outside of protected areas, wander into agricultural lands in search of food and cause crop or property loss.
Even worse, these impacts may cause farmers and residents to retaliate against the elephants if they believe their assets are in jeopardy. Poison or other lethal methods have been used.
Historically, Indian elephants were captured from the wild to use in the logging industry, most famously in Thailand. When logging was officially banned in the country in 1989, it left thousands of domesticated elephants and their owners jobless. This led them into the tourism industry, which included activities like elephant rides or circus performances.
Studies show that wild-caught elephants have significantly shorter lifespans, up to seven years less than those of captive-born elephants on average. Elephants who are caught in the wild for industry use are typically subjected to harsher treatment depending on their age and personality, but all elephants face the highest risk of death in the year immediately following capture.
Other studies have found that capture from the wild has long-term negative effects on the reproductive success of female Indian elephants.
Although countries like India, Vietnam, and Myanmar have completely banned the capture of wild elephants and elephant calves for any purpose, illegal poaching still happens in those and other nations where Indian elephants live. Young elephants and calves are the most valuable, and the process usually kills mothers or other females as they attempt to protect the babies. Although African elephants are better known for ivory poaching, tusked male Asian elephants are also poached in some areas.
Did You Know?
- Indian elephants help their ecosystems by dispersing germinating seeds and creating pathways through dense forests for other wildlife as they feed and roam.
- Humans have had a close cultural relationship with Asian elephants for centuries, having long played an important role in the religious and artistic heritage of the people that share the landscape with them.
- Elephants are also exceptionally intelligent, social, and emotionally complex animals with a proven capacity for empathy and self-awareness.
What We Can Do
In places where logging has been made illegal, organizations like the Save Elephant Foundation provide homes to elephants and their handlers to keep them from street begging, elephant riding, and circus shows. One of the most well-known, Elephant Nature Park located in Northern Thailand, provides rescue and rehabilitation services to over 100 elephants at a time.
In parts of Myanmar, teams of rangers work to protect and co-manage wild elephant populations with the Wildlife Conservation Society. They use a Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (or SMART), a geographic information systems-based software and patrol protocol used to systematically collect, manage, analyze, and report on data collected on forest patrols.
With SMART, park managers can deploy rangers strategically in hotspots for pooling or other illegal activities, manage efforts, and organize resources. In the forest of the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range in western Myanmar, SMART has helped ranger teams detect and destroy 25 illegal poaching camps as of 2022 while also using the data to inform future patrols.