Killing an elephant is very easy, ivory poachers and hunters have shown that time and again. But it’s a different story altogether to create one. The World Elephant Day was launched on 12 August 2012 globally to draw attention and support for conservation of Asian and African elephants. There is a severe threat to the future of the species. Human-elephant conflict, loss of habitat, mistreatment of elephants in captivity and escalation of poaching are some of the issues of grave concern. In India the World Elephant Day was launched in the year 2016.

Why we need a World Elephant Day?

In the last one decade the numbers of Elephant have dropped by 62%, and by the end of the next decade they could be almost extinct. It is estimated that around 100 African elephants are killed every day by the poachers for their greed of ivory, meat and other body parts of the tuskers. Till 2017, the planet has lost more numbers of African elephants than the population can again reproduce and this is a big threat to the future of elephants across the continent. Elephants with big tusks, who are also called Bull elephants are the main victims and their numbers have come down to less than half of their female counterparts. At times female African elephants are also killed leading to an increased number of orphaned baby elephants.

The Asian elephant’s habitat is spread over 13 countries across Asia. Sadly it is in the list of endangered species and we have only 40,000 of them remaining. This is less than a tenth of the African elephant population. Wild Asian elephant’s habitat is severely threatened in some of the most densely human-populated regions on the continent. Because of various developmental projects like establishment of industries, highways, railways etc their traditional territories and migration routes have been curtailed. With restricted access to their natural habitat, the elephants at times face deadly confrontations with humans, where neither of the species wins. Asian elephants just like their African counterparts are also poached for their ivory tusks, meat and body parts. Asian elephants are also used for entertainment purposes in circuses and tourism parks worldwide for which baby elephants are captured from the wild. Also at times used for illegal logging activities.

The Asian Elephant “Elephas maximus” was once widely distributed throughout India, including in states like Punjab and Gujarat. But currently they are found only in 14 states. The elephant has been accorded the highest possible protection under the Indian wildlife law through its listing under Schedule of The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 Govt. of India. This means that hunting/trading of this species can attract rigorous imprisonment of up to 7 years and a minimum fine of Rs.25000. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed the Asian Elephant in Appendix-I, which prohibits all commercial international trade of this particular species. Even after all these restrictions, poaching and hunting has not stopped.
In Central African forests the female elephants don’t typically breed until they’re 23 years old and they give birth just once in 5 or 6 years, an indicator of their low birth rate. This even led to declaring the decade 2002 to 2011 “a lost century”, because of the mass scale killing carried out by the poachers.

Thailand observes national holiday in honor of the elephant

Humans and elephants share a long history of co-existence throughout our civilization. The African elephant has resisted captivity because of their enormous size and aggressive nature, also their habitat is quiet huge. But the Asian elephant has co-existed with humans for over 4,000 years. It is associated with tradition and spirituality across many cultures throughout Asia. It is seen with a lot of reverence and one such example is from Thailand. In Thailand, the elephant is regarded as a national icon. A national holiday is declared in its honor and it can even receive a Royal title from the King.

The elephants are keystone species. The impressive ecological impact of the elephant touches the environment in various possible ways. The elephants are the key species that disperse seeds further than any other animal because of their appetite, great size and migratory pattern. In tropical forests elephants are responsible for up to 95% of seed dispersion. It is important to note that when seeds are carried and processed through elephant’s stomach acids, they become soft and hence germinate faster. Decrease in elephant’s number leads to decrease in number of trees also. Decrease in tree species that depend on elephants is an important issue with respect to the balance of our flora. It also affects the herbivores that feed and live in these trees such as bats, birds, insects and other mammals. For example in some forest areas chimpanzees depend on the fruit of one of the elephant-dependent trees, Irvingia gabonensis , for months at a time.

As the largest animals in Africa and Asia, elephants create watering holes that many communities of species use. They dig deep wells in dry river beds, in the African Savannah they maintain open grasslands, and fertilize soil with their nutrient-rich manure which is huge in quantity. They make deep footprints as they walk across the land because of their weight which is more than 12,000 pounds. These footprints are so big in size that they themselves become microhabitats. As these footprints fill with water, they become habitat to at least 61 different micro invertebrate species. If we fail to protect the elephants then indirectly we are failing to protect forests that are crucial in absorbing carbon gases in a world which is fighting global warming.

Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Head of TRAFFIC (Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) India said, “International demand is one of the main drivers for Elephant ivory in India, with usages varying from artefacts, wedding bangles, trophies and medicines. Poaching for meat and other products like tail hair also pose threats to populations, especially in North-east India. Ivory is smuggled out to countries like Japan and China via Thailand, Singapore, and Philippines”.

TRAFFIC is a joint program of WWF and IUCN. It ensures that trade in wild plants and animals are not a threat to the conservation of nature. Despite growing global bans, the killing continues because the trade continues. One kilo of ivory pays $3000 in the market, putting total of $30,000 on every elephant. It is an insignificant amount as compared to the $1.6 million each living elephant can bring into the country in ecotourism opportunities. In the same breath it must be said that not for a moment should we value any living creature only on the basis of their “dollar making capacity”, but it is an important factor that countries should consider when evaluating how elephants are more of an asset to their economy alive rather than dead.

In July 2016, the U.S. government passed a new law that substantially limits Elephant imports and in the following year China widened its restrictions on imports but it is expected that the Chinese government will do more to stop the country’s cultural greed for ivory. UK has disappointingly restricted addressing its position on the sale of ivory. We must put pressure for global ban on ivory if we want to see the elephants survive, for themselves as well as the wide range of animals and ecosystem that will suffer with their disappearance.

Governments should work on policy loopholes which are exploited by the criminals trading ivory and other products made from killing elephants. Measures for improved treatment of captive elephants and their reintroduction into protected sanctuaries that allow a natural replenishing of endangered populations should be of top most priority. Some of the areas which needs special attention are, better management of elephant habitats, better education about the role elephants play in an ecosystem, more economic opportunities for those whose livelihoods depend on elephants and increased funding for their conservation.

Some Elephant conservation organizations are already working towards these goals but we need more awareness and more participation. On this World Elephant Day, we should take the pledge to be more alert towards Elephant conservation and make others also realize how much we need this majestic friend of ours.

About Arpita Shome

Green Ubuntu Evangelist. Arpita Shome is an environmental enthusiast and an alumna of St. Xavier's College, Kolkata. She wants to create awareness among people regarding environment-related issues and encourage them to take up a sustainable lifestyle keeping in mind the ecosystem.