Elephant in the Room 

The fight to save South Asia's elephants

Elephants once roamed throughout Africa, from the Persian coasts, across South Asia to China and beyond. Today they are being killed faster than they are reproducing, threatened by a brutal wildlife trade, habitat loss and degradation.

Elephants of South Asia

Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Asian elephant (in South Asia) is now largely confined to India with approximately 26,000 – 30,000 animals. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka host smaller numbers.

TRAFFIC International cites wildlife crime as the fourth largest transnational crime in the world, worth USD 17 billion annually.
© Kalyan Varma

A rapidly expanding human population has led to the destruction of critical elephant habitat across South Asia. Human settlements and constructions have led to fragmentation, and disturbed migratory pathways. This competition for space has intensified human-elephant conflicts in the region. In some instances "revenge killings" have led to deaths of man and animal alike.

Roads and railway lines have significantly impeded elephant movement along connectivity pathways © Kalyan Varma

Although the international trade has been banned for over 25 years, ivory remains a primary motive for elephant killings. Ivory from Africa is smuggled into Asia and carved into ornamental objects. Male elephants in South Asia are also poached for their tusks (female Asian elephants do not grow tusks). In addition to declining animal numbers, this has led to skewed sex ratios in surviving populations. In Southern India the male to female ratio ranges from approximately 1:52 to 1:100 (the average is usually 1:8).

In the Periyar National Park, India, ivory poaching has led to human-induced adaptions in elephants. An overwhelming number of males are now born without tusks (called makhnas).
© Kalyan Varma

Elephants are also used for work in the forest and tourism industries, as well as religious and traditional ceremonies in Asia.

Human elephant conflicts and increasing ivory trade are undermining conservation action in South Asia © Kalyan Varma
Elephants can generate up to USD 5000 a day for their owners during  festivals. More than 100 elephants are put on display duringThrissur Pooram in India. © Kalyan Varma

Protecting South Asia's elephants

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2016, participants deliberated on motions to enhance the status and management of global elephant populations and habitats. High-level discussions focused on solutions and demonstrated the commitment of global leaders to end wildlife trade. Further steps were taken to formalise actions at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) COP 17 in October 2016.

Experts from the IUCN  Asian Elephant Specialist Group will meet in November 2016 to discuss actions to restore populations to viable levels.

© Rohit Varma
"It is heartening to see that the spotlight on illegal elephant killing is getting bigger and brighter. From global and national commitments to periodic reporting and capacity building of ground staff to tackle the issue, South Asian countries are taking crucial steps to address this challenge" - Dr. N.M. Ishwar, MIKE Sub-Regional Support Officer, IUCN India

Established by UNEP through CITES, the MIKE (Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants) initiative is supporting elephant range countries in monitoring elephant killings across Africa and Asia. The information is used to advise enforcement decisions and build capacities for long-term management of populations. Hosted by IUCN in India, MIKE has been mobilising and building the capacity of Governments in South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) to enhance regular reporting of elephant deaths.

Targeted efforts by IUCN Members, and partners across South Asia are helping to gradually conserve this iconic species and their habitats, with the help of local and indigenous communities.