It’s no surprise that one of the largest animals in the world requires a lot of space. Asian elephants, although smaller than their African cousins, need over 4,000 square kilometres of continuous habitat to thrive. Across much of their remaining range, however, the reality is very different – the species is now restricted to just 10% of its historic range.

A healthy Asian elephant population that can be expected to survive in the long term must be made up of at least 500 individuals. In Cambodia, however, the total number of wild Asian elephants is estimated to be somewhere between 400 and 600, with different groups scattered across two main areas on opposite sides of the country, each home to between 175 and 300 individuals. A handful of other, much smaller populations exist in other areas in Cambodia.

So now you see where the problem lies.

The combination of highly restricted habitat availability and small, isolated elephant groups means that Cambodia’s Asian elephants are in dire need of help. Categorised as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and listed on CITES and the Convention on Migratory Species, the species clearly has support at the global level. But this high-level recognition of the species’ troublesome situation must be reflected on the ground for there to be any real change.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been supporting Asian elephant conservation in Cambodia for many years. The Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group (CECG), a partnership established in 2005 between the Ministry of Environment, the Forestry Administration and FFI, aims to conserve Cambodia’s Asian elephants by bringing together governmental and NGO wildlife managers and forest communities. Now, this effort will be formally strengthened as Cambodia’s first national Asian Elephant Conservation Action Plan has been launched.

Community warden measuring an elephant footprint in the Areng Valley, Cardamom Mountains. Credit: Pablo Sinovas/FFI
Community warden measuring an elephant footprint in the Areng Valley, Cardamom Mountains. Credit: Pablo Sinovas/FFI

The action plan, which was developed by the Ministry of Environment, together with FFI and other stakeholders, is the culmination of years of dedicated research and strategising. It identifies threats to the species’ conservation and outlines the actions needed to overcome them in order to enable stabilisation and recovery of Cambodia’s Asian elephant population.

Alongside habitat loss and fragmentation – due to expanding agriculture and infrastructure development – and the current small population size, the plan identified four more priority issues: human-elephant conflict, poaching, live capture and human disturbance (such as the use of existing roads which cut through elephant habitat).

By drawing on existing wildlife laws and bringing in relevant stakeholders, the Ministry of Environment, the Forestry Administration and FFI will collectively address these threats. A number of different approaches will be employed – from strengthening protected area management across key elephant habitat to undertaking necessary research and monitoring – the action plan lays out the necessary steps required to prevent the species’ further decline.

Camera traps are a useful tool for monitoring elephant activity. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
Camera traps are a useful tool for monitoring elephant activity. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

This will be no mean feat. The plan sets out no fewer than 31 different activities to guide efforts over the next ten years and estimates that significant funding will be required. If successful, however, it will benefit not only the elephants themselves – but hundreds of other species living across Cambodia’s forests will also feel the effects and vital ecological processes will be restored.

Pablo Sinovas, FFI’s Flagship Species Manager in Cambodia, welcomes the new action plan: “Asian elephants deserve – and desperately need – the same level of conservation attention as their African counterparts. Here in Cambodia, generous support from US Fish & Wildlife Service and other donors has already enabled us to make encouraging progress. We look forward to working further with partners and local communities to ensure their long-term protection.”