Asian Elephant Geological Distribution

Though it's difficult to count elephants in the wild, it's estimated that the wild Asian population, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the 20th century, is now only 37,000 to 48,000
animals. Yet thanks to ancient cultural tradition, about 16,000 Asian elephants are kept in captivity in 11 Asian countries.

This situation makes the Asian elephant unique among endangered large mammals. In Thailand there are nearly three times as many elephants in domesticity as in the wild.

Elephantus maximus indicus is the most widely distributed subspecies, currently occurring in fragmented forest patches on the Asian mainland, from India and Nepal, east to Vietnam and Malaysia. E. m. maximus is restricted to the island of Sri Lanka, and E. m. sumatrensis and E. m. borneensis occur on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo respectively.

Range Description:

Asian elephants formerly ranged from West Asia along the Iranian coast into the Indian subconti-nent, eastwards into South-east Asia including Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, and into China at least as far as the Yangtze-Kiang.

This former range covered over 9 million km² (Sukumar 2003). Asian elephants are now extinct in West Asia, Java, and most of China The western populations (Elephas maximus asurus) were probably extinct by 100 BC, and the main Chinese populations (sometimes referred to as E. m. ru-bridens) disappeared sometime after the 14th century BC.

 Even within its surviving range in South and South-east Asia, the species has been in retreat for hundreds if not thousands of years, and generally survives only in highly fragmented populations (Olivier 1978; Sukumar 2003; Blake and Hedges 2004).

Asian elephants still occur in isolated populations in 13 states, with a very approximate total range area of 486,800 km² (Sukumar 2003; but see Blake and Hedges 2004). The species occurs in Bang-ladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in South Asia and Cambodia, China, Indonesia (Kali-mantan and Sumatra) Lao PDR, Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah), Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam in South-east Asia. Feral populations occur on some of the Andaman Islands (India).

The elephants of Borneo

Were believed to be feral descendants of elephants introduced in the 14th–19th centuries (Sho-shani and Eisenberg, 1982; Cranbrook et al., 2008); however, recent genetic evidence suggests they are indigenous to the island (Fernando et al., 2003; but see Cranbrook et al., 2008).

The species was once found throughout Sri Lanka, but today elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone where they are still fairly widespread in north, south, east, north-western, north-central and south-eastern Sri Lanka; but with the exceptions of small remnant populations in the Peak Wilderness Area and Sinharaja Area, elephants are absent from the wet zone of the country. The species continues to lose range to development activities throughout the island.

Once widespread in India:

The species is now restricted to four general areas: north-eastern India, central India, north-western India, and southern India.

In north-eastern India, the elephant range extends from the eastern border of Nepal in northern West Bengal through western Assam along the Himalaya foothills as far as the Mishmi Hills. From here it extends into eastern Arunachal Pradesh, the plains of upper Assam, and the foothills of Na-galand.

Further west, it extends to the Garo Hills of Meghalaya through the Khasi Hills, to parts of the lower Brahmaputra plains and Karbi Plateau. Elsewhere in the south in Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, and the Barak valley districts of Assam, isolated herds occur (Choudhury, 1999).

In central India, highly fragmented elephant populations are found in the States of Orissa, Jhar-khand, and the southern part of West Bengal, with some animals wandering into Chhattisgarh. In north-western India, the species occurs in six fragmented populations at the foot of the Himalayas in Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh, ranging from Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Bahraich Forest

Division in the east, to the Yamuna River in the west. In southern India, elephants occur in the hilly terrain of the Western Ghats and in parts of the Eastern Ghats in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and, relatively recently, Andhra Pradesh. There are eight main populations in southern India, each fragmented from the others: northern Karnataka; the Crestline of Karnataka–Western Ghats; Bhadra–Malnad; Brahmagiri–Nilgiris–Eastern Ghats; Nilambur–Silent Valley–Coimbatore; Anamalais–Parambikulam; Periyar–Srivilliputhur; and Agasthyamalais.

In Nepal:

Elephants were once widespread in the lowland Terai, but are now restricted to a few protected areas along the border with India: Royal Chitwan National Park, Parsa Wildlife Reserve, Royal Bardia National Park, and Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, and their environs. There is some movement of animals between these protected areas and between Bardia National Park and the adjacent parts of India.

In Bhutan:

All the existing elephant populations are found along the border with India. They are reported from Royal Manas National Park, Namgyal Wangchuk Wildlife Sanctuary, Phipsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Reserve Forests such as Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary, Dungsum, and Mochu.

In the past, elephants made seasonal migrations from Bhutan to the grasslands of India during the wetter summer months of May to October, returning to their winter range in Bhutan from Novem-ber. Now these movements are restricted as a result of loss of habitat on the Indian side and frag-mentation of habitat on the Bhutan side.

In Bangladesh:

The species was once widespread, but today it is largely restricted to areas that are relatively less accessible to humans, mainly Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast. In addition, some animals periodically visit the New Samanbag area of Maulvi Bazar District under the Sylhet Forest Division in the north-east of the country, coming from the neighbouring Indian states of Tripura, Meghalaya, and Assam.

The Asian elephant has a wide, but highly fragmented, distribution in Myanmar. The five main areas of elephant abundance are: the Northern Hill Ranges, the Western Hill Ranges, Pegu Yoma (central Myanmar), Tenasserim Yoma (in the south, bordering Thailand), and Shan State or eastern Yoma.

In Thailand :

The species occurs mainly in the mountains along the border with Myanmar, with smaller frag-mented populations occurring in the peninsula in the south (in several forest complexes, south to the border with Malaysia); in the northeast (in the Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai forest complex, in-cluding Khao Yai National Park, and the Phu Khieo-Nam Nao forest complex); and in the east (in a forest complex composing the Khao Ang Runai Wildlife Sanctuary, Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, Khao Khitchakut National Park, and Khao Cha Mao National Park).

In Cambodia:

Elephants are primarily found in the mountains of the south-west and in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri Provinces. Recent surveys in Keo Sema District (Mondulkiri Province) suggest that important numbers may remain in that area (WCS unpubl. data). Elsewhere, Asian elephants persist in Cambodia in only small, scattered populations (Duckworth and Hedges, 1998).

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic,:

Elephants remain widely but very patchily distributed in forested areas, both in the highlands and lowlands. Two important and likely viable populations are known, one in Xaignaboli Province west of the Mekong and one on the Nakai Plateau. Other potentially important elephant populations occur in Phou Phanang and Phou Khao Khoay in Vientiane Province; Phou Xang He in Savannakhet Province; Dong Ampham and Dong Khanthung, including Xe Pian, close to Cambodian border; and Nam Et, Nam Xam, Phou Dendin, and Nam Ha in the north, close to the Viet Namese and Chinese borders.

In Vietnam:

Only a small population persists now. In the northern part of the country there are no elephants left, barring occasional wanderers into Son La from Lao PDR. In the central and southern parts of the country, very small isolated populations remain in Dak Lak, Nghe An, Quang Nam, Dong Nai, and Ha Tinh Provinces.

In China:

Asian elephants once ranged widely over much of southern China, including the Fujiang, Guangdong, and Guangxi Provinces (Smith and MacKinnon, in press). The species was extirpated in southern Fujiang and northern Guangdong during the 12th century, but evidence indicates persistence in Guanxi into the 17th century (Smith and MacKinnon, in press). All that now remains of this once widespread elephant population in China is the remnant in Yunnan where the species survives in three prefectures: Xishuangbanna, Simao, and Lincang.

In Peninsular Malaysia:

The species is still widely distributed in the interior of the country in the following States: Pahang (which probably has the largest population), Perak, Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, and Negeri Sembilan (where very few animals remain).

In Borneo:

Elephants only occur in the lowlands of the northeastern part of the island in the Malaysian State of Sabah and adjacent parts of Kalimantan (Indonesia). In Sabah, they occur in forested areas in the south, centre, and east of the State in the following Districts: Kinabatangan, Sandakan, Beluran, Lahad Datu, Tawau, and Pensiangan. In Kalimantan, elephants occur only in the Upper Sembakung River in Tindung District.

The origin of the elephants of Borneo remains unclear and the subject of debate. Due to the limited distribution of the island’s elephant population it is argued by some that the species was not in-digenous, but descended from imported captive elephants (Medway 1977; Cranbrook et al., 2008).

However, others argues that while captive elephants have undoubtedly been brought to Borneo, genetic analyses have shown that the elephants found on Borneo are genetically distinct, with mo-lecular divergence indicating a Pleistocene colonization and subsequent isolation (Fernando et al., 2003).

In Sumatra (in Indonesia):

The elephant was once widespread, but now survives only in highly fragmented populations. In the mid-1980s, 44 discrete elephant populations were known to exist in Sumatra’s eight provinces, 12 of these were in Lampung Province (Blouch and Haryanto, 1984; Blouch and Simbolon, 1985). However, by 2003, only three of Lampung’s 12 populations were extant (Hedges et al., 2005).

 An unknown number of Sumatra’s other elephant populations remain (Blake and Hedges, 2004), and those that do are threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and as a result of conflict with humans (Santiapillai and Jackson, 1990; Hedges et al., 2005).

Nevertheless, the island is thought to hold some of the most significant populations outside of India. For example, recent surveys in Lampung Province’s two national parks, Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas, produced population estimates of 498 (95% CI=[373, 666]) and 180 (95% CI=[144, 225]) elephants, respectively (Hedges et al., 2005).

Bukit Barisan Selatan NP is therefore a critically important area for Asian elephant conservation. The challenge now is to protect these populations from further habitat loss and poaching.

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