Throughout Asia, the elephant has been viewed as the symbol of good fortune, strength and godliness throughout history. In India, where I just spent most of May, elephants have been an integral part of the cultural and spiritual fabric for thousands of years. In no other country has the elephant been so integrated into everyday life, the world of work, the splendor of festivities and the myths of religious cults. Given such status, one might think that the fate of the Asian elephant is much brighter than that of their African cousin.
Yet, where millions of Asian elephants once roamed from Syria to China, now there are roughly only 30,000 in the wild, concentrated in the subcontinent and neighboring Burma, Thailand and other areas in Southeast Asia. Due to enormous human populations in this part of the world, the elephant’s natural habitat has diminished to small, disconnected wild areas, limiting migrations and ensuring overlap with human habitat. The Asian elephant is considered endangered and may become extinct in the wild in the next 30 years.
In India, some 15,000 elephants are urban citizens, modes of transportation and substitutes for heavy hauling equipment. To see elephants, go to almost any temple in southern India, search for tigers on elephant back in the national parks, observe them ambling the streets of cities as they go to work. You are most likely to see elephants in the midst of throngs of people, rather than in the wild. The quality of life for these “domesticated” elephants is controversial. It is unnatural for any elephant to live alone, be confined to one location and stand still for hours on end. On the other hand, their deification and utility assures they are cared for and protected. Nevertheless, absent healthy breeding herds in the wild – the source of “replacement” elephants – the temple elephant too will become history.
India without elephants is as unimaginable as Africa without elephants. But the unimaginable is in the works in Asia as well as in Africa. For more information on the Asian elephant and what is being done, click here.