The Asian elephant is the largest surviving land mammal in Asia. Although significantly smaller than its African cousin, it is still an awesome beast. An adult bull can weigh over five tonnes. It is also distinguished by its smaller, more rounded ears. Female Asian elephants usually lack tusks, which has the added benefit of making them less vulnerable to ivory poachers.
Asian elephants are highly intelligent animals characterised by strong family bonds, sophisticated forms of communication and complex behaviour, including tool use and the ability to feel grief and compassion. Their versatile trunks are equally capable of brute force (pushing over a tree in order to reach leaves on the inaccessible upper branches, for example) or performing a delicate task such as picking up a peanut.
They are adapted to a wide variety of habitats including dense tropical evergreen forest, dry and wet deciduous forests, scrubland and grasslands.
The species has disappeared from much of its former range and is now largely confined to isolated populations across 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia, scattered across a total area of roughly half a million square kilometres.
Fewer than 50,000 wild Asian elephants are estimated to survive today, compared to around half a million of their African cousins. In the forests of Vietnam, official figures state there are as few as 91 left alive.
Estimated in the wild:
Fewer than 50,000
Asian elephants are in even greater need of conservation attention than their African counterparts.
The ratio of Asian elephants to African elephants.
The amount of plant material that an Asian elephant can eat in a day.
The Asian elephant is under severe pressure throughout its range. Many of the countries where the species still occurs hold wild populations numbering just a few hundred, usually in small, fragmented groups.
Threats to its survival include forest destruction and agricultural encroachment as well as targeted and opportunistic poaching for ivory, meat and other body parts.
On the densely populated continent of Asia, humans and animals increasingly find themselves competing for space and living side by side. As their natural habitat shrinks and traditional migration routes are cut off, elephants are forced onto agricultural land or into newly urbanised areas. Confrontations are inevitable, and can result in death or injury to both people and elephants.
Whilst habitat loss – and the ensuing conflict with humans – undoubtedly poses the greatest threat to the survival of Asian elephants, poaching for their ivory, meat and even their skin is also taking a severe toll on numbers.
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Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been championing the cause of the Asian elephant for decades. Back in the 1970s we supported a comprehensive survey of its status and distribution throughout its entire range, from India to Indonesia.
FFI has been at the forefront of elephant conservation in Southeast Asia since 1995, focusing on Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Asian Elephant Conservation Programme has worked in partnership with governments, communities and local NGOs to increase understanding of the species’ needs, safeguard its habitat and reduce human-elephant conflict.
A successful elephant landscape conservation programme in Aceh – Indonesia’s westernmost, biologically rich province on the island of Sumatra – led to FFI being invited by the Indonesian government to help put together a national elephant conservation strategy.
In 2001, FFI convened a historic bilateral conference between the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia – the first ever on elephant conservation – which resulted in an official transboundary cooperation agreement to protect one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining tracts of dry deciduous forest, a vital refuge for Asian elephants and other threatened species. The Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group, has been working to protect that country’s elephants since its launch in 2005.
FFI was among the many organisations calling on the UK government to introduce a domestic ivory ban to help safeguard both Asian and African elephants from poaching. We need other countries – particularly in Southeast Asia – to follow the UK’s example. In the meantime, FFI is continuing to support anti-poaching, conflict mitigation and awareness-raising activities in Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Habitat loss poses arguably the greatest threat to the world’s biodiversity, with human activity inflicting unprecedented changes on the natural habitats on which wildlife depends.
Humans are inextricably linked to the environmental landscape within which our daily lives unfold. We depend completely on nature for a stable climate, clean air and water, and food.