Living in some of the most densely populated parts of the world has brought challenges – Asian elephant numbers have roughly halved in the last three elephant generations.
In Hinduism, the powerful deity honored before all sacred rituals is the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha, the 'Remover of Obstacles'. Elephants have been revered for centuries in Asia, however religious and cultural significance is no guarantee of protection.
All three recognised sub-species of the Asian elephant – the Sumatran, Indian and Sri Lankan elephants – are in peril. Roaming in herds, these large mammals need extensive land to survive, feeding for up to 19 hours a day to meet their energy requirements. But Asia's growing human population has its own demands, and people are increasingly competing with elephants for resources.
Healthy forests and the many endangered species they support depend on elephants. They influence forest composition and density by creating clearings and gaps in the canopy that encourage tree regeneration, and many seeds need to pass through an elephant's digestive tract before they can germinate. If we can protect the Asian elephants, then that removes another obstacle to protecting animals like the Sumatran rhino, tiger and orangutan.
What we're doingSee our conservation work on the Asian elephant.
Illegal wildlife trade
WWF and our local partners have responded to the high incidence of elephant and tiger poaching in central Sumatra by coordinating wildlife patrol units. These units conduct anti-poaching patrols, confiscate snares and other means of trapping animals and educate local people on the laws regarding poaching. In many Asian countries, WWF works with TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network), to reduce the threat that illegal and illicit domestic ivory markets pose to wild elephants.
Elephants can survive and breed in natural forests that are selectively logged. The best hope for the long-term survival of Borneo's elephants lies in sustainable forest management for timber production. WWF works with plantation managers and owners in key pygmy elephant habitat to create reforested wildlife corridors that allow elephants and other species to move freely between natural forests.
Reducing elephant-human conflict
Forests in central Sumatra are being cleared so rapidly that elephants often move into farms and commercial plantations in search of food. In 2004, WWF started an Elephant Flying Squad, made up of rangers who use noise and light-making devices and four trained elephants to drive wild elephants back into the forest if they try to enter villages. This eases the conflict between people and elephants and helps to educate struggling communities about elephant conservation. We also researching the nature of elephant-human conflicts and are working with local communities and companies to ensure that both species can coexist.
Why it matters
More than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but numbers have halved and continue to decline. With only 40,000-50,000 left in the wild, Asian elephants are now classified as endangered, and they occur in possibly only 5% of their former range in Asia.
The trouble is, this dwindling elephant population shares its reduced habitat with a growing population of people eager to convert more tropical and subtropical forest to farmland. Few of these people appreciate that elephants follow ancient seasonal migration routes and that each individual needs, on average, 150 kilograms of food each day to survive. An elephant will spend more than two-thirds of its day satisfying this hefty appetite.
Wherever they go, elephants deposit the seeds necessary for the healthy forests upon which many other species depend. Large they may be, but elephants benefit even the smallest residents of these Asian forests.
Asian elephants differ in several ways from their African relatives. They’re much smaller in size and their ears are straight at the bottom, unlike the large fan-shaped ears of the African species.
Listed as Endangered (under IUCN Red List).
Did you know?
The legs of elephants are unique, designed to support the weight of the largest terrestrial animal. Asian and African elephants have different numbers of toenails.
Illegal wildlife trade and poaching
Not everyone views our planet's extraordinary plants and animals the same way as we do. Some see them as a resource to be plundered and to profit from. Around the world, conservation gains are at risk of being overturned by the illegal trade in wildlife, which is growing at an alarming rate.
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The primary threat to elephants is the loss and fragmentation of forests. Mammals of this size require large areas to roam in search of sufficient food. However, commercial timber plantations, agriculture, logging and palm oil plantations continue to encroach on and replace natural forest. This is destroying elephant habitat and reducing contact between dwindling elephant populations.
As a result of the rapid development and deforestation in southern Asia, elephants often come into contact with humans. They raid crops, trample homes and sometimes hurt or kill people. Those affected sometimes retaliate by poisoning or shooting elephants.
Male Asian elephants typically have smaller (if any) tusks compared to their African counterparts but this is enough to tempt poachers operating in the illegal ivory market. The death of male elephants skews the sex ratio, further limiting rates of reproduction.
What you can do to help
- Don't buy ivory products. The illegal trade in ivory is one of the greatest threats to elephants today.
- Buy and use sustainable palm oil. By purchasing certified sustainable palm oil, retailers, traders and manufacturers can help to limit the conversion of Asian elephant habitat into palm oil.
- Consumers can help by demanding that products contain only sustainable palm oil.
- Adopt an elephant to help support our elephant conservation work.