Mitigation Steps for Solving Plight of Asian Elephants
Although well protected from international trade, Asian elephants have little protection under domestic laws. Generally, national wildlife agencies in Asia consider the domesticated elephant to be just another domestic animal (and allow their tusks to be sold), while livestock departments consider it wild and not under their jurisdiction.
"So it's in a very curious, halfway position that makes conservation very difficult," explains Lair. Caring for privately owned domesticated Asian elephants often turns out to be the job of an impoverished mahout—or nobody's job at all.
Elephants are now competing for fewer jobs at lower pay, which has forced mahouts to accept undesirable jobs or to overwork their animals. In Thailand, some owners have even started selling their elephants to be slaughtered for meat. Less than 10 years ago, such an act would still have been unthinkable. "Captive elephants in Thailand at the moment would seem to have rather limited options," says Mather bluntly.
The tourist industry:
Ecotourism is a booming market in many developing countries, and often it's the only viable solution for elephants. In addition to offering protection to some wild herds so that tourists can observe them in their natural habitat, ecotourism has given many domesticated elephants better work opportunities.
The elephants that carry tourists safely on treks through the jungle are usually well cared for. "It's not desirable; it's not traditional," Lair points out. "On the other hand, it's relatively harmless, and it's the only form of employment that will make sure that people continue to keep elephants." But not all elephants are temperamentally suited for toting tourists—especially not the large, aggressive male elephants once valued by loggers.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of elephants are also being used in less benign forms of tourism. Performing in shows or serving as special attractions in hotels and tourist centers, they often suffer from lack of social contact with fellow elephants or risk injury doing dangerous and unnatural tricks.
Logging: Selective logging;
In which only certain trees are cut, leaving the forest habitat as a whole intact—would be an optimal choice. Elephants could work in a traditional and legitimate manner, and their use would protect the forest by reducing the need for roads and heavy machinery.
Selective logging is rarely employed, however. It is an option only in places where sufficient healthy forest remains, which is not the case in many parts of Asia. And in Thailand, the 1989 ban has made all forms of logging illegal.
The Thai ban sparked a jump in lumber prices, which led to a boom in illegal woodcutting. Elephant labor is essential to this illicit trade, which is thought to employ between 1,000 and 2,000 animals, in northern Thailand in particular. But these animals are poorly cared for.
Begging in the streets:
More and more elephants can be found with their destitute mahouts begging for money in the streets of large Asian cities like Bangkok. These elephants suffer respiratory infections, damage property, and get hit by cars.
Solving the Plight :
Fortunately, the elephant has become a flagship species of wildlife conservation in all 13 countries of Asia where it is still found. Efforts are being made on many fronts:
Reducing the hunting and capture of wild elephants for ivory and tourism.
Curbing habitat destruction:
One solution is to create vegetated corridors between separated habitats. This can be as simple as building a bridge across a canal, but the bridge must be wide, as only bulls are bold enough to cross a narrow bridge. Other ways to improve the quantity or quality of remaining habitat include maintaining a buffer zone of secondary-growth forest and creating waterholes.
Improving protection of wild herds:
This is complicated. Populations must be large enough offset inbreeding and environmental dangers such as droughts and floods. Yet herd size must be controlled to minimize encroachment on human habitats and to foster local support for elephant conservation.
Trenches, electric fences, spotlights, and noisy rockets have all been used to deter elephants from straying onto planted fields, but with varying degrees of success. Other tactics include persuading farmers to grow crops that aren't attractive to elephants and removing troublesome bull elephants.
However, the males disproportionately responsible for crop damage and attacks on humans tend to be the most successful breeders, so eliminating them from the population isn't a desirable solution. If existing habitat is inadequate, sometimes elephants are relocated to roomier ones.
Better care for captive elephants:
Another initiative is to establish centers to accommodate unwanted, abused, and confiscated elephants. For example, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang provides a home, work, food, and veterinary care to more than 100 elephants. Dangerous animals are confined in a secure area; young working elephants are trained; and the rest roam free and breed, producing young elephants that will be reintroduced to the wild.
Reintroduction to the wild:
"If elephants can't find gainful employment, then instead of having them wandering the streets of Bangkok begging for money from tourists or Thais, let's just put them back in the wild," says Mather. "Send them back into the forest. That's their home." Thailand's Elephant Reintroduction Foundation does such work, releasing domesticated elephants into the wild to generate wild herds.