The decreasing population of the Asian Elephant due to habitat loss and poaching.
Description of problem:
The Asian elephant is one of the most commonly thought of endangered animals often seen in advertisements by animal rights agencies such as the WWF (1) with many people donating to projects to help with their conservation. Despite the message reaching people via these organisations the population still seems to be dropping. It seems many people especially in other countries feel it is not their problem to provide assistance to preserve these animals and they often believe their loss would not have a direct effect on their own lives even though the loss of this species would directly affect people across the world.
Asian elephants especially contribute largely to the tourism industry with people coming from many different locations across the world visiting these countries to see them first hand so if the species goes completely extinct there will be a massive loss to the economy of many countries within Asia. This in turn will affect the economy of other countries such as the UK as there will be a decrease in the number of people booking holidays to Asia meaning airlines, travel agents etc. will also lose out on important income.(2)
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“I think the extinction of the mammoth is a salutary lesson that applies to modern extinctions”
Professor Adrian Lister
Natural History Museum (3)
The population of the Asian elephant is said to have decreased by 50% over the last 60 years so now the numbers are said to now be at an all-time low of 25,600 and 32,750 (4)and is still said to be decreasing with them now being said to be more endangered than the African elephant.
Methods of investigation:
The population decrease can largely be attributed to habitat loss and illegal poaching taking place in large amounts across Asia. About 20% (5) of the human population live near a habitat where Asian elephants are living and as the human population increases more places to live and materials in general will be needed and many of these are found in Asian elephant habitats. An example of this is forests being logged to provide timber for furniture and construction and in their place people are building and growing crops on the land. This in turn pushes the Asian elephants to have to move into smaller areas which are free from human intervention but with the population density becoming greater there is not enough fodder to support the animals which in turn leads to the weaker animals to struggle for food and reproduction rates can also be affected meaning that for all the elephants that are dying there are not enough being born to replace them. The deforestation also leads to some elephants being poisoned by chemicals being used on the land and other herds being separated into smaller groups which are unviable as this can lead to inbreeding (6) and over long periods of time there will not be enough genetic diversity to sustain the population.
Figures show that in Indonesia alone there has been a loss of 60,000 sq km of forest over a period of 12 years. The higher the loss of forests the more Asian elephants (7) are lost with many activists worrying that if the deforestation is not slowed down many of the world’s mammal species including the Asian elephants could not survive. In 2012 Indonesia lost 8,400 sq km of forest which in turn led to them overtaking Brazil who previously had one of the highest deforestation rates in the world but only lost 4,600 sq km (8). In China on the other hand there are only 2% of its forests still intact with a very limited amount of it protected so the remaining forests are still in danger of destruction from deforestation be it for materials such as paper or the areas being urbanised. The risk to the biodiversity of Asia is high as these forests are the only home for many of these animals.
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Illegal poaching is becoming an increasing issue in Asia with elephants either being killed in retaliation for destroying crops or for their ivory. In India it has been established that there may only be around 1200 breeding males left alive (10); due to the males being the only ones with tusks they are slaughtered much more frequently and with such a high number of females to males breeding rates are low and people are seeing the elephants even less frequently.
Solution to the problem:
Many people across the world recognise the risk to the elephants but for them to be saved and the population replenished some viable solutions need to be proposed.
One way to resolve this issue would be captive breeding (in situ) of the elephants. Removing the elephants from their natural habitat and taking them to zoos to breed as this may be one of the most effective ways to get the population back up in numbers to what it once was. The zoos that take part in this must be specially equipped to deal with the large animals and it is important that they know how to breed compatible elephants, if the elephants chosen for the program are not compatible this could lead to a further loss of genetic variation or to an unsuccessful pregnancy. This method has already proven to be successful with the Saint Lois zoo successfully matching Asian elephants (13) and allowing them to breed, to do this they used Species Survival Plans which determine the genetic information of each elephant and make the information available so compatible matches can be found. This technique can be used across the world with perhaps more local zoos in Asia being able to use the same method to breed further.
Effectiveness of solution:
"Captivity does not equal conservation. Research shows elephant captive breeding programs fail, and in the rare event a zoo elephant produces a calf, it cannot be released back into the wild . . . The best way for these zoos … to assist with the future conservation of this species, is to support field conservation programs in Asia."
-Vivek Menon, Wildlife Trust of India, Agence France Press, Dec. 2, 2004 (14)
A major issue with the captive breeding of Asian elephants is the fact that it has proven to, more often than not, to be unsuccessful. Many zoos rather than wanting to help preserve the elephant population participate instead to propagate them for the zoos meaning the zoo cares more about making a profit than the success of the program.
Although in some places the program has been successful the young elephants are then raised in the zoo environment meaning they cannot be introduced into the wild as they would struggle to survive so even though this may help increase the population it will just be bringing more elephants into captivity.
There are ethical implication for keeping Asian elephants in captivity in that in the wild elephants have wide ranges to roam whereas in zoos their indoor environment is a mere 20 feet by 20 feet in area and their outdoor area does not stretch much more than 40 feet by 45 feet (16). This lack of space has been proven to cause foot and joint diseases, reproductive problems, high infant mortality rates, and psychological distress which in turn can lead to the premature deaths of many of the elephants (17)
Also as many of the breeding programs take place in the US the elephants chosen for the programs have to be transported over from Asia which is also a distressing journey for the animals. Although the elephants often have specially made crates for their weight and size they are in an enclosed space for extended periods of time to make the 13516 km journey, even though the journey is seen as necessary it is still very unethical to keep an elephant in an enclosed unfamiliar environment.
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There are also economic implications of the captive breeding with the costs of following the breeding programs being extremely high. To transport the elephants to where the breeding will take place which is often a long journey requiring specialist equipment is often costly (18) and once the elephants reach their location they need specialist spaces, food and a medical care for the breeding to take place which also needs a lot of funding. The money for these projects cannot just come from charities as there is not enough, any zoo carrying out the program needs to be specially funded and with limited funding from the government this money is hard to obtain (19).
Advantages of solution:
The Asian elephant draws a lot of tourists to different areas of Asia thus boosting the economy and bringing awareness of the continent to different areas of the world perhaps making people want to visit or even set up business there. The conservation also brings awareness about the elephants themselves; allowing people to learn more about them, allows people who may not have had the opportunity to see the animals previously the opportunity to get close to the animal (20). The more awareness raised about the animals the more money perhaps this will draw in from the public to help fund other conservation projects; for example in situ conservation in Asia to allow the elephants and natives to live harmoniously.
Disadvantages of solution:
There is a risk with this solution of humans being harmed if care is not taken when moving the large animals as they can be unpredictable in their behaviour and they may view humans as a threat when being taken into a new or enclosed environment. For example in India, over 100 people are killed by elephants each year which demonstrates the danger they can pose especially in an unfamiliar environment (21).
With the increased numbers of elephants without enough habitats more could stray into the path of humans perhaps unintentionally causing damage to property and crops but also if feeling threatened they may harm humans. Often the elephants are foraging for food as the increasing numbers mean competition for food is fierce and many of the elephants are fighting to survive.
An alternative solution to this that would lead to an increase in the population but decrease the number of risks and implications would be to allow the breeding to occur in the wild using methods such as artificial insemination. This method will mean the animals do not have to experience the distress of transportation and will not have to live in captivity. The sperm can be taken from a compatible breeding male which can then be frozen to be transported to a compatible female elephant where she can then be inseminated allowing fertilisation to then take place. This method has proven to have a success rate of 50% (22) proving it to be a much more effective method than captive breeding which had a very low success rate.
This success of this method could be owed to the fact pregnancies have a higher chance of being carried out to full term as the elephant does not have to suffer the stress and anxiety caused by being within an environment they are not used to. The cost to the economy is also reduced with the costs of transporting the large animals being cut out completely. Also as with captive breeding the animals cannot be introduced to the wild as being in captivity has not prepared them for the challenges and competition for survival in the wild, with this method the animals will be born and raised in the wild once again increasing the gene pool and reducing the risk of inbreeding.
- Home (no date) WWF. Available at: http://www.wwf.org.uk/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation(Home, no date)
- Home (no date) WWF. Available at: http://www.wwf.org.uk/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (Home, no date)
- Gill, V. (2011) ‘Elephant extinction’, BBC Features. BBC Nature. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/12839452 (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation
- Endangered Species (no date). prezi.com. Available at: https://prezi.com/1zpxgtskud7l/endangered-species/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).
Citation (Endangered Species, no date)
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- Asian Elephants: Threats and Solutions (no date). AMNH. Available at: http://www.amnh.org/explore/science-bulletins/bio/documentaries/wild-at-heart-the-plight-of-elephants-in-thailand/asian-elephants-threats-and-solutions (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (Asian Elephants: Threats and Solutions, no date)
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- BBC Asia (2014) ‘Indonesia sees massive deforestation’, 30 June. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-28084389 (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (BBC Asia, 2014)
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- http://www.9web.co.uk, 9web (no date) Ivory Poaching Concerns for India’s Elephants. Available at: http://www.elephantfamily.org/what-we-do/conservation-news/ivory-poaching-concerns-for-indias-elephants-/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (http://www.9web.co.uk, no date)
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- The Need to Breed:: Saint Louis Zoo (no date). Available at: http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/mammals/asianelephant/theneedtobreed/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (The Need to Breed:: Saint Louis Zoo, no date)
This website was useful as it provided a case study of where my proposed solution had been carried out successfully and what it takes for a zoo to be able to carry out this sort of program.
- Middleton, M. and Animals, I. D. of (no date) Help Elephants (IDA) - Elephant Conservation. Available at: http://www.helpelephants.com/elephant_conservation.html (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (Middleton and Animals, no date)
- ‘New home for Cambodian killer elephant’ (no date). Available at: http://phys.org/news/2010-12-home-cambodian-killer-elephant.html (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (‘New home for Cambodian killer elephant’, no date)
- ‘Get Elephants Out of Zoos’ (no date). PETA. Available at: http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/zoos/get-elephants-zoos/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (‘Get Elephants Out of Zoos’, no date)
- ‘Elephants are dying out in America’s zoos’ (2012). The Seattle Times. Available at: http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/elephants-are-dying-out-in-americas-zoos/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015). Citation (‘Elephants are dying out in America’s zoos’, 2012)
- ‘Toronto Zoo elephants arrive at California sanctuary’ (2013). Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-zoo-elephants-arrive-at-california-sanctuary-1.2127403 (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (‘Toronto Zoo elephants arrive at California sanctuary’, 2013)
- Public Benefits of AZA-Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (2012). Available at: https://www.aza.org/public-benefits/ (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (Public Benefits of AZA-Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, 2012)
- Sukumar, R., Eltringham, K. and Harwood (1993) The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.Citation (Sukumar, Eltringham and Harwood, 1993)
This book was particularly in this report as it provided valuable figures and insight into how captive breeding works and the different elements required to aloow the programs to be carried out successfully.
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- Thongtip, N. (2009) Successful artificial insemination in the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) using chilled and frozen-thawed semen. BioMed Central Ltd. Available at: http://www.rbej.com/content/7/1/75 (Accessed: 14 February 2015).Citation (Thongtip, 2009)