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Episode 300: A Colossal Episode on Asian Elephants

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The magnificent Asian Elephant (image from livescience.com)

There are few more iconic mammals than the Elephant and for many people they conjure up images of the sweeping African Savannah, but Asian elephants roam the rainforests and grasslands of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. They are the largest surviving land mammals in Asia, although they are significantly smaller than their African counterparts, and are also distinguished by their smaller, more rounded ears. They may be smaller than the African elephant, but a male bull elephant can weigh up to 5000kg.

On every continent except Australia and Antarctica there are fossil records of 160 extinct species of probiscodeans (large bodied species with trunks and tusks). 3-million-year-old fossils from Bethlehem show the earliest records of the elephant lineage, starting with Gomphotherium, the earliest example of modern-day elephant evolution. This animal had tusks, but they were recurved, meaning they curved towards the body rather than away, as we see with Elephants today. These tusks were likely used for rooting up vegetation from the wetlands it likely inhabited. It definitely had some sort of trunk, although it was likely much shorter than the trunks of the modern-day elephant. It was a very successful creature, with fossils found from North America through Europe to Africa. When the climate and ecosystems began to change 2.6 million years ago, Gomphotherium and its relatives gave way to the Mastodons of the forests and the Woolly Mammoths of the grasslands. These are some of the most common fossils found in the world, and there is extensive evidence of both species being hunted for meat, fur and sinews for prehistoric humans.

A timeline of Elephant evolution from the earliest small, tuskless ancestor, through to intermediate species like Gomphotherium, to the iconic Woolly Mammoth to the Asian and African Elephants we love today (image from thefossilforum.com)

Although the ancestors of Asian elephants roamed across the grasslands, tundras and steppes of much of the world, with Woolly Mammoths famously found across North America, today Asian elephants can be found in tropical forests, dry forests and thorn forests of Asia. There are three recognised subspecies today;

  • Elephas maximus maximus: found throughout Sri Lanka and South India.
  • Elephas maximus sumatrensis: found on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
  • Elephas maximus indicus: found throughout the rest of Asia.

The confirmed range (green), degraded but recoverable range (orange), possible range (blue) and the IUCN determined historical range (pale yellow) of the Asian Elephant. This clearly displays how fragmented their habitat has become. (Image from Hedges, S (2015)

The Asian elephant is currently classified as endangered by the IUCN red list, with the Sumatran subspecies listed as critically endangered thanks to huge deforestation and human-wildlife conflict in the area. Although some populations have remained fairly stable in some regions there have been particularly concerning decreases in Vietnam, Sumatra, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar. Currently, India holds the largest elephant population, followed by Sri Lanka, although these elephants are hardly safe as houses; increasing human pressures are an ever-present threat to these iconic mammals.

Elephants never forget: memory, cognition and emotion

We’ve all heard the famous phrase: an elephant never forgets, but this just an old myth or is there some truth to it?

Animal cognition, memory and emotion is a tough field to study. Despite vast quantities of anecdotal evidence and years of studies and observations by elephant experts, the standard for proving memory, intelligence and emotion is a high one. Humans have a difficult time understanding animal cognition; just because it doesn’t look the same as human intelligence doesn’t mean species across the animal kingdom aren’t as clever and emotional as us. Despite this, even the most hardened sceptic would have a hard time denying that elephants are smart and emotionally connected to each other.

The elephant brain has 257 billion neurons and can weigh up to 11 pounds, making for rather a lot of grey matter. Although it is next to impossible to unequivocally prove intelligence, the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test is one tool researchers use. Previously, only humans, the great apes and dolphins were able to pass this test. The protocol involves anaesthetising the animal and marking them with paint or a sticker in an area of the body the animal can’t normally see. The animal is then shown a mirror and their reaction to their reflection recorded. Anyone who has ever had a pet cat will see how they react to their own reflection; they freak out and think another cat has invaded their home! They are not capable of self-recognition; in other words, they do not recognise and understand that the animal in the reflection is in fact themselves and not another animal; they would definitely not pass the MSR test. If an animal undergoing the MSR test wakes up and touches the spot painted onto them whilst they were unconscious, this is an indication that the animal understands the reflected animal is an image of themselves. This is by far a perfect test, but it is the best we have so far, unless there is a Dr Dolittle out there who can have a chat and find out exactly what an animal is thinking. Elephants always pass the MSR test, putting them into that very exclusive group of self-aware animals.

Happy, an Asian Elephant at the Bronx Zoo passing the Mirror Self Recognition test with flying colours. (Image from Plotnik et al, 2006)

Doctor Cynthia Moss is a famous behavioural scientist (ethologist), who has spent much of her life studying wild elephants and their behaviour and social organisation. She has years of evidence of the amazing emotions and complex social interactions of elephants, famously documented in books like ‘Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family’ or ‘Echo of Elephants: Story of an Elephant Family.’ She witnessed elephants helping and comforting those in distress, such as a female who got caught in a muddy hole, which requires not only altruism, once thought to be solely the province of humans but also an understanding of how another individual is feeling, and how to comfort them. Even more profound, she saw demonstrations of grief when a mother, having recently lost her calf, walked sluggishly, head down, for days behind the rest of the herd. In another tragic event, after two members of the herd were shot dead by poachers, the rest of the herd were seen gathering around their bodies and throwing leaves over them, standing over their fallen friends all night and into the next day. Studies at a timber farm in India were some of the first published in academic journals showing that one elephant was frightened, others would rally round and console them. Studies from captive elephants have shown that after being kept in poor conditions without proper care, elephants can show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Conservationist and behavioural scientist Cynthia Moss in the field with her beloved elephants (image from classicescapes.com)

And as for an elephant never forgets? Evidence from wild herds shows that elephant memory is undoubtedly one of the best in the animal world. Matriarchs, the head females of elephant herds, need excellent memories to ensure the survival of their fellows. A prime example of this is from a severe drought in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. The matriarchs who lived through this learned alternate ways of getting food and water from different areas of the park never before visited, and remembered these paths years later, even when the drought had long passed, and the park was bountiful again.

Big animals, big problems: the threats facing Asian Elephants

Asian Elephants are currently listed as endangered by the IUCN red list. Almost half of the Asian Elephant’s range consists of heavily fragmented habitat that is massively impacted by human development. Currently, India holds the largest population of Elephants, where their numbers are relatively stable, closely followed by Sri Lanka, although it is estimated that this population has been steadily declining since the 1960s. However, the areas of major concern are Vietnam, Sumatra and Myanmar, where there have been dramatic declines in elephant numbers and enormous levels of deforestation.

Satellite tracking of elephant herds revealed that the average group needs a home range of 250 to 400km2. This is a largest enough area in of itself, but when their prime habitat is fragmented, as is the case throughout much of Southeast Asia, the home range area required jumps to 600km2, as the resources become thinner on the ground and the habitat poorer. Satellite images show that between 2001 and 2019 Southeast Asia’s forests have lost an area larger than Thailand to crop plantations, particularly palm oil, rubber and sugarcane, mining, transport links and the creeping expansion of human cities. Much of the prime forest that is left is in blocks no bigger than 250km2; sounds like an enormous area to us, but is the lowest size a herd of Asian Elephants can comfortably live and forage in. On top of this, much of the forest clearing is done by slash and burn agriculture, which involves cutting down vegetation and drying it out to be burned, which creates a layer of nutrient rich ash in which crops can be grown. It is a traditional technique that can be highly effective, but the intensity and scale of forest conversion by slash and burn in the modern day is a huge source of greenhouse gases and leaves even untouched areas adjacent to the clearance massively degraded. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for elephants to range.

The devastation caused by slash and burn agriculture (image from Paula Bernstein, ThoughtCo)

This reduction in range is driving another major threat for the future of Asian elephants; human-wildlife conflict. Driven from their forest homes in search of food, or travelling from one fragmented habitat to another, elephants are unfortunately sticking their trunks where they aren’t wanted: usually in some unfortunate farmers crops. Each year elephants cause millions of dollars’ worth of damage to crops like cereals, fruits, and soy, with 38% of farmers in Asia loosing at least half their crops to elephant raids, a huge blow to those living on the poverty line. Many of these crops may belong to poor, struggling farmers and they are their only source of income for their families. It is very difficult for animal lovers to understand, but it is not surprising that these farmers will retaliate to elephants raiding their crops, sometimes fatally, with poisoning and shootings. Sole bull elephants can be a particular problem, bulldozing through crops and sometimes even injuring or killing people, approximately 400-450, on their way. Often farmers will try to mitigate this conflict by putting up electric fences, which can be very successful but can cause bottlenecks as elephants are squeezed between farms. Often landscape planning is a factor, with prime habitat protected but the corridors between these areas neglected, driving herds down the same routes and straight into conflict or onto major roads or rail lines, where they are often killed and cause accidents in the process. Although swathes of habitat have been legally protected throughout their range, collaring studies have revealed that Elephants actually spend a lot of time roaming outside of these areas, where they are likely to have an unpleasant run in with humans.

A typical conflict between Asian Elephants and humans across Asia. This is complex problem with no easy solution. (image from Mongabay.org)

Both of these factors are making life extraordinary tough for Asian elephants and to make things worse, they are frequently the victim of poaching. Its hard to get a good handle on numbers of elephants poached; its not like poachers will be announcing their profits to the world at large, preferring isolated markets and dodgy websites to flog their illegal animal products. The dense forest habitats of Asian elephants make it a lot harder to track poaching than for their African cousins, and it is a fact that the vast majority of ivory on the market is traced back to Africa. Often poaching is considered less of a threat for Asian Elephants, as females and some males actually lack tusks, unlike African Elephants. However, in 2018, scientists from the Smithsonian institute reported a disturbing new trend from their GPS collaring of elephants. The first elephant poached was shot within 6 days of being fitted with the collar and the local partners, a Myanmar timber company, whose employees had grown up around and working with the gentle giants, were distressed to find the elephant skinned, with the limbs hacked off. Ivory poaching had been on a slight rise in Asia, but now the elephants are also being targeted for their skin and meat. Just from this one study, seven of nineteen collared elephants were poached within a year of being fitted with their collars. This skin and meat are in demand for jewelry, furniture and is ground down into a powder for medicinal purposes. Historical poaching of Asian Elephants for tusks has massively skewed the sex ratio leading to many more females than males, causing genetic abnormalities from inbreeding. This newer demand for poaching is often leading the most dominant elephants to be poached as they are the largest, and this will continue to worsen the genetic conundrum facing the Asian Elephant.

A Chinese trader weighing a piece of Asian Elephant skin in an illegal wildlife market. This piece of skin, weighing 420.3 g would fetch a price of $335 (image from New York Daily News)

Many of us will have seen an Elephant up close in a zoo, often the only chance we may get to see these amazing animals in the wild. Hopefully you will have seen them in a good quality zoo, where they are well cared for by dedicated zookeepers, and where ground-breaking research is being carried out to help their wild compatriots. However, not all captive elephants are held in ideal conditions. Particularly in Asia, standards of care differ very wildly and there are not enough resources to help those elephants trapped in bad conditions such as circuses or those in the tourist trade.

The sad reality is that thousands of elephants are simply not kept in good conditions, in places where their welfare is not a priority. This is a complex cultural issue across Asia, as many see Elephants as an important part of religious celebrations, or use them to work, such as in timber farms. These people are below the poverty line and have little choice. (image from Big Perspectives)

Conservation Optimism

There is no denying that Asian Elephants have some jumbo-sized problems. But they are not a neglected species when it comes to conservation and there are a lot of very clever and dedicated people working to secure their future survival.

One such organisation is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who are collaring elephants across Asia to track and plot their movements. Lack of adequate land management is a major force behind human-elephant conflict and understanding how elephants are moving through and using the land will help local governments choose map elephant habitat use and decide what areas to protect and the corridors to prioritise. Working alongside local communities, WWF are helping to preserve and connect core habitats, such as the Terai Arc Landscape, an ancient elephant migratory route, and making sure that local farmers aren’t being pushed off land they need to survive. In Sumatra, which is a deforestation hotspot, the WWF are leading a 100,000-acre reforestation effort, which will support the estimated 150 critically endangered Sumatran elephants that live in the area. The charity is also providing low-cost electric fencing to farmers to allow them to protect their property, although unfortunately some elephants will simply pull this down.

A team of scientists working for WWF Malaysia to collar a record number of elephants in an attempt to track elephant movement between protected habitats. This will hopefully allow scientists to determine important corridors to protect. This will hopefully mitigate some of the human-wildlife conflict across Asia. (image from WWF.org)

Despite the many conflicts between humans and Asian Elephants, many surveys of local people reveal that they are very keen to work towards harmony between themselves and the forest giants. Across Asia, the elephant is revered as an important religious and cultural icon, linked to the Hindu god Ganesh. They are understandably tricky to live alongside, but there are solutions that are being explored. Deterrents like electric fences, trenches, firecrackers, bonfires, and even fences covered with chili oil have all been trialed in the field, with varying levels of success. Thanks to their high intelligence, unfortunately elephants often become accustomed to these measures and can ignore or evade loud bangs and fences. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has done some brilliant work using beehives dotted along the boundary of farmers’ fields, with studies showing that the elephants are deterred from a munch through the farmers crop by the buzzing and potential stings of a riled-up hive of bees. This also allows the farmers to gain a little extra income from selling honey, putting some extra money in the bank if a rogue elephant decides they’re not so afraid of the bees after all. Other trials have included interspersing less palatable crops, like citrus trees, in between the elephants’ favourite snacks to deter them from mowing through fields unrestrained.

An example of solar powered electric fencing that is currently being deployed throughout Asia to try and prevent crop damage. Limiting crop damages will help impoverished local farmers protect their livelihood whilst co-existing with elephants. (image from IndiaMART)

Many farmers have expressed a desire to move away from frightening elephants away and would rather have financial support, being paid a fee any time an elephant causes damage. Ecotourism is a promising avenue, with many farmers in the region realising they can turn a profit from guiding animal loving tourists to elephant herds, gaining more income to support themselves whilst finding a way to co-exist peacefully. This option looks even more promising after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Asian tourist trade collapsed in 2020 with travel restrictions prohibiting anyone from travelling, and many captive elephants, held in attractions that could no longer bring money in, where herded back to the wild. Today, these semi-wild elephants are now an ethical tourist attraction, allowing people to get up close to such amazing animals in their natural habitat. This successful transition from cruel captivity to almost wild existence and the money it has brought to locals provides a promising future for ecotourism in the area.

TRAFFIC, a charity dedicated to ending the illegal wildlife trade, has done a lot of work tackling the ivory and skin trade that is threatening the Asian Elephant. The secured a domestic ban on the ivory trade in mainland China and are working to change cultural attitudes towards the use of endangered animal products. They are currently working to tackle the online market, where much of the illegal trade has moved.

The Save Elephant Foundation is a Thailand based charity that works specifically to provide care and rehabilitation to Asian Elephants rescued from terrible conditions in captivity. Their founder, Saengduean Lek Chailert, grew up with an elephant named Thong Kham, or Golden One, who was gifted to her father in return for saving a young man’s life. After university she worked in the tourist trade for many years, where she witnessed the awful cruelties, the captive elephants were subjected to. Horrified by this and galvanised into action after growing so close to an elephant in her childhood, she began rescuing elephants in the 1990s, establishing a permanent homeland for them in Chiang Mai. Now an award winning conservationist, she has worked for many years to raise awareness of the plight of both captive and wild elephants. You can read more about the amazing work of her charity and learn how you can help at https://saveelephant.org.

Founder of Save Elephant Foundation and elephant rescuer Saengduean Lek Chailert with one of her beloved Asian elephants

Awesome videos!


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October 12, 2022
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