In exploring some issues relevant to the illegal trade in ivory I encountered report after report of tragic confrontations among villagers and elephants on the Indian Subcontinent- reports that rarely get much, if any coverage in the Western world, but are commonplace in local newspapers.
I admit that as little or as much as I know about basic elephant behavior and biology, my exposure to elephants is quite limited to what I have learned in zoos. With that said, my acumen for husbandry, training and broader in situ conservation issues is based primarily on what I know of Africa’s savanna and forest elephants. My knowledge of Asian elephants is second- hand and based on anecdotal information from handlers who worked with elephants for years in circuses and from colleagues who have worked with both Asian and African elephants in both protected and “free contact” situations…….. In fact, the most recent time I pondered the notion of working with elephants in captivity or in the wild was when Harry Peachey, Elephant Manager, Curator, Board member (IEF), and world -renowned elephant expert lightheartedly proposed that we work on a joint project in Borneo. Harry surmised that Borneo was an ideal destination for our “project” because the sun bears would cover my interests and pygmy elephants are of great interest to him. It’s not that elephants would be a disappointment to work with, not in the least, but like chimps, I consider elephants to be far smarter than myself and I’m not sure who would be training who. Anyway, the Borneo pygmy elephant is a subspecies of Asian elephant known for it’s size and passive demeanor and is under heavy extinction pressure. But I digress, again…..
While the black market ivory trade flourishes and poached animals are tragically killed at alarming rates in Africa, the human-wild Asian elephant interface in India highlights the increasing difficulty to live with elephants who navigate the forest corridors that lead them through intact habitat, circumventing the need to travel through more densely populated human inhabited areas. However, agricultural development outside preserves continue to place pressure on buffer zones. Roads and railway tracks fragment the habitat of the corridors crucial to elephant movements.
You can’t blame the elephant and you can’t blame local villagers. These people are just trying to make a living. But it’s just another reminder of how easy it is for people who have never encountered a herd of 50 or more agitated tuskers, as Asian bulls are often referred to, and cows trample your home and chase and sometimes injure or kill your family members. This is not to say that in many situations the animals weren’t provoked, but this is not uncommon if you live closely to wild elephants. I think that the media coverage of tame, domesticated elephants in Southeast Asia create an image of Asian elephants that we may prefer to believe.
Elephant issues in Africa and Asia are far more complicated than what I describe so briefly in this post, but it’s a poignant reminder that there are two sides to every story. Although the black market promotes poaching for ivory even within protected preserves and often by the very game wardens and wildlife officials who are paid to protect theses animals, there are also people trying to make an honest living in elephant country. Clearly the use of land by animal and man often creates tragic consequences for both elephants and people.
To learn more about what zoos are doing for captive elephant welfare and conservation visit the National Elephant Center. You can also read the recent Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s (AZA) Press Release on elephant conservation and this European Association of Zoo & Aquarium’s (EAZA) Newsletter on Elephants. This latter issue dedicated to elephants is quite informative.
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus