Jumbo job: Saving elephants from cops and culls

by AFP/Amal Jayasinghe, Sep 25, 2003 | Destinations: Sri Lanka / Colombo

For captured Indian elephants, police in uniform may be a red rag yet they bond well with their keepers; but in the jungle the battle for space between pachyderms and humans is becoming wilder and more deadly, officials say. Conservationists wanting greater political support for their work to reduce the human-elephant conflict now want the problem taken to the United Nations, which they say should nudge governments to get involved in the effort.

"There is no point in what we do if the governments are not involved," Sri Lankan expert Jayantha Jayewardene told AFP. "This is a consensus that emerged from a meeting we had with a large number of international experts in Colombo at the weekend." He said over 200 conservationists and researchers joined the call for greater state involvement to save hundreds of wild pachyderms as well as people who are killed across Asia and Africa in a worsening battle for space.

With domesticated elephants, too, there are problems. Seven experts from India noted that captive elephants in the southern Indian state of Kerala showed some wild instincts throughout their lifetimes. "The elephants showed an unpleasant attitude to drunken people and policemen in khaki uniform," the researchers said, noting that most of the wild elephants had been captured using sharp or pointed objects and restraints.

However, a study by two other Indians found that the relationship between captured elephants and humans was generally good and the captive elephant population had grown to about 750 in Kerala. But about 30 to 40 elephants had been killed by poachers in Kerala's Ranni forest in the past three years.

Conservationists noted that in most Asian nations, wild elephants with jumbo appetites considered rice fields and fruit farms an open buffet and cost millions of dollars in losses to farmers each year. "The conflict between humans and elephants has grown within the past 10 years, causing the death of many elephants from either gunshots or electrocution," said Sippon Krishanachinda on problems faced in Thailand. "This was mainly because the elephants had roamed into the villagers' fruit fields, destroyed grown trees and consumed all fruits."

There were similar problems in Sri Lanka, India, Laos, Malaysia and China. However, in Myanmar, elephants are the workhorse of the sole agency responsible for logging, the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, which employs 2,715 elephants, said two researchers, U Aung Kyaw and U Khin Mg Cho.

They said there were another 1,360 elephants privately owned and deployed for drawing carts and ploughing fields. The deep Buddhist traditions prevented many people there from killing marauding elephants.

"Because the majority population believes in Buddhism, Myanmar's wild elephants (numbering about 5,000) have not been killed by villagers," they reported.

A top authority on African elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, said religion and cultural practices in Asia could show the way for peaceful coexistence between people and elephants amid ever-increasing pressure on habitats.

Inviting tourists to hunt wild elephants in Africa as well as a cull to reduce pressure on the vegetation and use the proceeds to conserve elephants elsewhere was also discussed here, but many opposed the idea. "The culture and traditions in most of the Asian regions do not support the culling in any form," said a study supported by an Indian authority, Jacob V. Cheeran.

The number of wild elephants in Africa is estimated at about 600,000 while in Asia it is believed to between 35,000 to 40,000. African elephants are found in 34 countries while in Asia only 13 countries have wild herds. Douglas-Hamilton argued that conservationists should use new technology to track wild elephant herds and learn more about their behaviour to ensure there is no conflict with development work needed for people. He warned that if people did not leave space for elephants they will eventually not leave enough room for themselves.

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