By: Elise Gilchrist
We are currently losing species from our planet at an alarming rate. Asian elephant numbers are declining for a myriad of complex issues including habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and poaching for ivory. In the last seventy years at least half the population in the wild has been lost (IUCN Redlist) and at current rates could go extinct in the coming decades. It is a disturbing truth that has no simple answer. The field of conservation biology looks into issues like this one in order to try and find solutions that could keep species, like elephants, and their habitats sustainable. The problem faced by many conservationists is that there are few resources allocated to this work, which requires careful planning, and frugal spending to ensure the biggest impact is achieved.
Now if you’re a smart businessman, you want to get the most bang for your buck. You want to make a shrewd investment that gets the highest yield for the lowest cost. If we take this same strategy and apply it the business of conservation then we want to invest in what has been termed an umbrella species. An umbrella species is one whose requirements and needs overlap and include those of many others. Often times this is a species that has a large range and requires high-quality habitat. The theory is that if an umbrella species and its habitat are protected then many other species sharing that ecosystem will be protected as well. For example, if we protect the habitat used by one population of Asian elephants in Thailand we may in turn protect habitat for leopards, gibbons and king cobras!
Allotting resources to surveying, monitoring and protecting a species can add up to a large chunk of money and with new species becoming endangered everyday there is not enough to go around. This fact is especially true for smaller, “less glamorous” species, like reptiles and amphibians that do not get the same adoration often bestowed upon charismatic mega fauna, like pandas and elephants. This is another reason why using the umbrella species strategy can help send a little help to the underdog. Campaigning to raise money for a smart, playful population of Asian elephants is often more successful than the campaign to save a rare, creepy looking beetle.
So at a time when our world is raining extinctions do elephants have a large enough umbrella to sit under? Due to the fact that elephants require huge expanses of land and enjoy a mosaic habitat, meaning they utilize diverse territory ranging from grassland to dense forest, protecting elephants would offer protection to species that live in all the environments that Asian elephants require. This makes elephants a great candidate to be an umbrella species. If we were to protect the Asian elephant, we would extend an umbrella over parts of Southeast Asia that may otherwise not have any protection from the monsoon season of extinctions.