Elephant Update — Asia and Africa

 

Asia and Africa — where the elephants live.  Separate species, the Asian and African elephants are unalike in many ways.  One of the most pronounced differences is their coloration.  African elephants range from griege to rust to golden, depending upon what color of sand they cover their body with to protect themselves from the sun and insects.  Underneath all that sand and mud, however, is basically a gray animal.  Asian elephants all start life with gray skin, but as they age, a depigmentation takes place around their ears, trunks and heads that results in a pinkish-cast.  Some say they develop “elephant freckles.”  But in fact, it is the opposite — a loss of skin color.

What they share is a history of genocide.  In all of Asia, there are now only 35,000 to 40,000 wild elephants.  Most of the elephants you see when visiting Asia are “working” elephants (some might say enslaved elephants) — in temples, festivals, logging forests, tourist attractions. “Local” demand for ivory long ago decimated Asia’s wild elephant population.  The same has been happening in Africa for centuries, culminating in the crisis of late, which finally focused the world’s attention on possible extinction of the roughly 450,000 remaining wild African elephants.

The convergence of media coverage, NGO commitments and celebrity created an awareness level that is actually making a difference, albeit incremental and not without substantial future challenges.  It’s a process of two steps forward, one step backward in many cases as evidenced by recent news reports.

China’s pledge to close legal ivory markets and trading by the end of this year is already having an impact on the market.  Prices are falling as demand is diminishing.  Some traders are now faced with an “over supply” although much of their supply is likely black market ivory.  Hong Kong has lagged behind the mainland.  This month, legislation has been introduced in the former British colony that would phase out the legal market over a five-year period.  Recent hearings contained a face-off between African rangers (who pleaded that the time frame be reduced as they put their lives on the line every day) and traders (who argue that they have too much stockpile to sell by 2021).

Legal markets in Japan remain, and there has been much less public attention paid to its markets than China’s.  Regulations exist, but enforcement is  reportedly lax, resulting in fairly vibrant legal and illegal markets.  Japan has an enormous consumer class, as well longstanding traditions of coveting ivory objects.  We should not assume China’s progress extends to Japan and other Asian markets.  In fact, surplus ivory in Hong Kong and China may well find its way into Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Laos.

In Myanmar, which has a population of 1,500 – 2,000 wild elephants, poaching has recently increased due to a new skin cure fadThe ashes of elephant skin, mixed with coconut oil, is the new cure for eczema while ground elephant teeth supposedly whitens skin.  Although there is no scientific basis for either, as we all know, fads can flourish without any basis in fact.

Overall, Africa’s elephant populations are alarmingly small. In East Africa, elephant populations are increasing in some areas, and in Southern Africa, national parks are over-crowded because the elephants know to seek out protected areas. In addition to stressing the environment in the parks, large elephant populations are increasing human-wildlife conflict. Even if the demand for ivory fell so low that poaching for ivory became history, challenges for the world’s largest land mammal remain.  Africa’s  human population continues to explode and its untapped economic potential is blossoming.

Again, two steps forward, one step backwards.  We should celebrate the accomplishments of recent years; particularly the decline of demand and prices in China and increased vigilance in African countries in catching and prosecuting poachers and traders.  Yet, we cannot let the positive momentum become undernourished; for if we take our foot off the pedal now, elephants everywhere will continue to decline.  Go to the Experts tab on this site, chose an organization whose conservation activities appeal to you and support them!  You really can make a difference.

The Price of Celebrity

celebrity ele

Earlier this  year, I made a post about Asian elephants and issues concerning the quality of life they have in captivity.  Now, The New York Times Magazine has published a great article, entitled “The Hard Life of Celebrity Elephants.”

The author, Rollo Romig, is a freelance writer in India with first hand exposure to the popularity of elephants as temple and festival adornments.  While elephants in captivity can be seen throughout India, the State of Kerala hosts the preponderance of celebrations that employ elephants as part of the traditional rituals practiced.  I had a chance to observe this first hand at the Thirunakkara Festival in Kottayam in March 2012.  This particular festival lasts for ten days, featuring three elephants on the first day and climaxing with 20 festooned elephants on the final nights (photo above).

India has many laws protecting elephants and as the following passage from the articles points out, the number of elephants in captivity is slowly diminishing:

“The demand for elephants is skyrocketing just as the supply is plummeting. In 1982, India banned the capture of wild elephants except to protect the animal or its human neighbors, and it has been illegal to import captive elephants from other states since 2007. Despite their history in domestic situations, there’s no such thing as a domesticated elephant. Nearly every captive elephant in India was captured from the wild, and in Kerala, captive breeding is almost unheard-of, mostly because Keralites overwhelmingly prefer their elephants to be male (since they have tusks), which considerably shrinks their mating pool. When the Forest Department finished microchipping Kerala’s captive elephants in 2008, it said there were more than 700. Now the department estimates that there are fewer than 600, pressed into service at an ever-growing number of festivals.”

Certain elephants have fan clubs and followings but celebrity does not equate to quality living.  Life as an adorned festival performer is unnatural, as is being solitary and unable to roam freely.  One wonders what will happen should the number of existing temple/festival elephants dwindle substantially below the demand for them.  Let’s hope their role in festivals can be phased out so that the remaining wild elephants are not quietly drafted into service.