Global environmental challenges
Who will miss Asia’s awkward elephants?
Standing ten feet tall and weighing up to five tonnes, you’d think an Asian elephant would be hard to miss.
But the giants that range across 13 Asian states are so at home in the dense forests and jungles they live in they’re often hard to spot.
Conservation experts rarely expect to see the wild elephants they spend their time devising management strategies for. Head counts are mostly based on dung samples rather than fleeting sightings.
Unlike in Africa, where safari tourists see the animals in the wild, Asia’s elephant attractions are close-up experiences.
Centres stocked with domesticated elephants let visitors ride ex-loggers left unemployed by a 1989 logging ban, in “mahout training courses” and jungle treks.
But there’s a tinge of awkwardness around the elephant tourism boom.
“I still don’t like to see them in captivity,” Richard Lair, Director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampung, near the northern Thai elephant hotspot Chiang Mai, told me.
Even though “tourism is soft work” compared to logging, the current situation – which sees show elephants painting, playing soccer, doing hula hoop with their trunks and being led along city streets by their mahouts to beg for cash — is no solution to the elephant’s troubles, he said.
“Animal rights people say it’s belittling these animals to put them in shows, and there’s a degree of truth in that. But the two tenets of political correctness clash: One, we’ve got to be kind to the elephants. And two, we’ve got to protect people’s traditional lifestyles,” he said.
“So it’s like logging is OK but painting is not? How many elephants have been killed doing painting? None. How many have been killed doing logging? Many”.
“I describe myself as a liberal social worker in a penitentiary. I’m doing a job I believe in within a system I don’t.”
While some mahouts I spoke to at the country’s largest elephant festival, in Surin, were happy with their lot others said they are as trapped as their elephants.
One, working at a centre close by the border to Burma, said the centuries old tradition of “mahoutship” should be allowed to die out.
Each day’s work with his elephant, whose has been a street-walker, logger, trekking elephant and temple elephant, reminds him of the tough lives today’s elephants lead, he said.
“We take them from the wild, we beat them, we torture them, and then they have to pay their way in the world we created for them? I don’t see the logic of it. Elephants don’t owe us anything whatsoever. They don’t need to justify their existence.”
“I think we delude ourselves if we always look for signals of their love for us.”
“I feel wherever we intervene with them, even with the best intentions, they suffer a bit.”
For villagers living alongside wild elephants, seeing the voracious herbivores is more than awkward.
It is often terrifying.
Once elephants taste human crops such as rice, watermelons, bananas and sugar-cane, they become repeat raiders.
Crashing out of forests, they devour whole fields to supplement the 200kg a day of grass, leaves, twigs, bark they need to eat every day.
Far away from the readers of glossy wildlife magazines and primetime nature TV shows that spends hours showcasing the iconic megafauna, patience on the ground is wearing thin.
Asian elephants helped build Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and carried Thai troops into battles.
They still log forests in Burma and star in festivals from Nepal to Sri Lanka.
But that does not cut much ice with fishermen whose boats have been destroyed and villagers whose houses have been pushed over.
Hundreds of people, and elephants, are killed in skirmishes between the oversized “agricultural pests” and angry farmers every year.
Asia’s high population densities and fragmenting forests mean contact is more frequent, and the death toll higher than in Africa, where there are about ten times more elephants.
With a few fledgling monitoring systems in place, no one even knows where all the wild elephants are, let alone their status.
“Elephant killings are under-reported — farmers killing elephants in frustration at chronic human elephant conflict (HEC) are not likely to report elephant carcasses,” the co-chair of the IUCN’s Asian Elephant specialist group, Simon Hedges, told me.
People aggravated by HEC can take revenge by burning forests, Hedges said, further worsening the root cause of the conflict.
If the forest habitat the elephants need to survive isn’t protected, the conflict will worsen, experts fear, creating a triple whammy of habitat fragmentation, conflicts and hunting.
While South Africa is preparing to cull elephants to control numbers, Asia can’t afford to lose many more of its already vulnerable endangered herds.
Listed as endangered for more than 20 years, the prospects for many are bleak.
As the developing countries they live in struggle to provide for their human populations, protection of wildlife ranks relatively low on most totem poles.
Elephant range countries, who met to discuss the animals for the first time in January 2006, have already made the choice.
After an elephant species survival plan lapsed years ago, Vietnam’s 80 remaining elephants are now functionally extinct according to conservationists.
Barely mentioned in the media, their fate poses a wider question.
Awkward, exploited, feared — if Asia’s elephants vanish, who will miss them?