Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How to Become Un-Endangered (Part 3 of 3)

by Lisa Barrett

 After looking at examples of successfully rescued species (Part 1) and some of the factors affecting which species we decide to save (Part 2), this final post of my three-part series will investigate the conservation debate with the case-study of the Asian elephant.

Part 3: Endangered Asian Elephants

Threats They Face

While much of the elephant conservation world has focused on protecting elephants by curbing the illegal trade of ivory and ivory poaching, there are many other threats that elephants face. Though elephants throughout Asia are vulnerable to illegal hunting and trade, the major threats to wild populations are habitat destruction and fragmentation. Humans have been clearing jungle for land development projects such as farming and road-building for decades, and as we overtake natural spaces, elephants are subject to potentially fatal interactions with humans. This is especially dangerous as human farmland is created and elephant habitat is destroyed; without alternate food sources, elephants may consume an entire farmer’s crop—and livelihood—in a matter of hours. Tensions and profit losses caused by increasing instances of crop raiding often culminates in humans killing elephants in retaliation, and elephants injuring humans in the process (a process termed "human-elephant conflict"). Altogether, reduction in habitat space and the growth of human populations leaves little we can do to support wild populations of the largest land mammal in the long-term.

At current rates, Asian elephants will likely be extinct in as little as 20-50 years. At the same time, there is scarce data on elephant population loss, making it difficult to predict how the population will change or to identify strategies to properly address solutions.

 Habitat loss is the biggest threat to Asian elephants.
Photo from: farmlandgrab.org
Learning from the Past

Elephants are popular targets for conservation efforts—not just because of elephants’ reputation as graceful giants and cultural icons, but because they are intelligent, social, and are critical for their ecosystem (learn more about elephants as a keystone species here). What strategies have been used by conservationists, and how do they create a rescue plan? While we would ideally apply past successful conservation action plans from other species in trying to protect Asian elephants, this situation is particularly complex and conservation is not a “one size fits all” enterprise. Take for example, this extract from an interesting case study about bird conservation from Natterson-Horowitz and Bower’s book, Zoobiquity:

In the 1980s, peregrine falcons were on the verge of going extinct. Biologists removed freshly-laid eggs from their nests to begin a captive breeding program, and soon the population was revived. The adolescent falcons grew up, were released, and began mating with other falcons.
Years later, when the California condor needed saving, conservationists applied this same lifesaving method. But this time, it seemed that the birds could not simply be raised and released. Biologists studying the behavior of these vultures determined that juvenile condors need to be mentored by older individuals in order to learn foraging and resting techniques to survive. By analyzing condors’ behaviors and setting up a mentoring program, biologists eventually brought the condors back from the dead. In this case, the conservationists had to admit their mistake: each population requires its own, specialized species recovery plan.

California condors became extinct in the wild in 1987.
Photo from: cacondorconservation.org

This story demonstrates how one conservation approach may not necessarily apply to another species (even if the species share the same class!), and it shows us that conserving endangered animals can be even more daunting than we found in the first two parts of this blog series. It also exemplifies the idea that it is crucial to understand a species’ behavior before embarking on a conservation “crusade” to help them (read about Conservation Behavior here).

For example, elephants are a migratory species. An important conservation effort for elephants has been to create corridors of vegetated space between fragments of elephant lands in countries such as India and Botswana. However, in some cases it is not possible to preserve the ancient migratory routes of these isolated populations. In fact, the feasibility of implementing this sort of method depends on the geographical area and whether creating a corridor would have drastically negative effects on the human community’s economy. Critics have also claimed that the establishment of corridors is too expensive given that there has been little evidence that corridors are successful.          

Another conservation strategy for Asian elephants involves discovering practical ways of preventing elephants from entering farmland. This method relies on behavioral research that tests efficacy of olfactory deterrents, such as chili pepper, and auditory deterrents, such as bee buzzing, which farmers can then place around their crops as a barrier. These techniques represent very simple solutions to mitigating an ongoing problem and will hopefully delay the disappearance of Asian elephants.

Third, the construction of physical barriers and fences have also aided in diminishing instances of human-elephant conflict. For example, bright spotlights, electrified fencing, and deep trenches have been used to deter elephants from exploring human settlements, but these methods can be expensive to implement. Another option is to send a trained female elephant to lead intruding herds away. However, some elephants may simply be attracted to the trained female.

Although expensive to install and maintain, electric fences usually keep elephants out.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

As part of every method of conservation, we must first continue to seek to understand the behavior of Asian elephants and to work alongside community members to find the best solution for both sides. This involves educating people about the numerous benefits elephants indirectly offer to the people and helping them to understand the importance of saving elephants. Although some of these strategies are more focused on mitigating future loss of elephants, there are also efforts which concentrate on breeding elephants to foster population growth.

To learn more about conservation methods that could help save elephants, click here.

Looking to the Future 

While the fate of the Asian elephant almost certainly lies in extinction, there is much that can be done to mitigate this grim future. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which lists Asian elephants as a priority species for conservation, has initiated an ambitious program to help conserve dwindling populations of Asian rhinos and elephants (Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS)). AREAS focuses on preserving core land areas for wildlife and working with local community members to practice sustainable agriculture and land use. Legal protection of elephants and elephant habitat throughout Asia is another vital effort, especially that offered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Asian elephant population estimates are difficult to determine.
Image by: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal

We may not be able to stop the extinction of Asian elephants, but by educating future generations of policymakers and citizen scientists, TEI is investing all of its efforts in the future, and we need your help. Together, we may be able to change perspectives about the environment.

How To Become Un-Endangered

In this blog series, we have discussed how the U.S. Endangered Species Act represents a case study of how successful conservation efforts are often complicated plans requiring much collaborative work, including research, legislation, and education and that they do not come without critiques. We also explored possible factors in deciding which endangered species deserved to be “saved.” Interestingly, Asian elephants represent a charismatic species that may have made the list of those that are “worth saving” a little too late. While we have learned that there is not a single answer or panacea for saving Asian elephants, we have gained valuable insight into what it takes to help a species on the Red List becoming “un-endangered.” With Asian elephants, it’s important to remember that there simply is not enough space for there to be more free-ranging, wild elephants. Unfortunately, it seems we can only try to delay the inevitable by employing a variety of conservation methods, some of which have not convinced us of their efficacy.  
Please consider contributing to Think Elephants’ education programming here.



  1. Having just spent a week with the Asian Elephants at Elephantstay, Ayutthaya, Thailand, your predictions are extremely distressing to me. I hope and pray that we are not too late in undoing some of the harm we have perpetuated on these magnificent animals.

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