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Elephants on the brink in Asia
An icon in Vietnamese culture, the Asian elephant is rarely spotted in that part of the world anymore.
Since 1990, the elephant population in the country has plunged from 1,500 to 2,000 individuals to barely 100.
The Asian elephant is in serious decline throughout its entire range, according to a report released Tuesday by the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
Logging, agriculture and human resettlement programs are pushing the elephants out of their traditional homes and into increasing conflict with humans, the report notes. About 20 percent of the world's human population lives within the present range of Asian elephants, and that number is growing by nearly 3 percent each year.
Today, an average of 2.4 elephants are killed each week in Sri Lanka alone.
"Too many people are moving into areas that coincide with elephant habitat," said Elizabeth Kemf, species conservation information manager for WWF and lead author of the report. "People are dying and elephants are dying. Conservation groups need to reduce the number of deaths on both sides."
Unlike tigers and other large cats, which generally avoid people, elephants are more inclined to remain in habitat that has been encroached upon by humans. Opportunistic by nature, elephants will readily visit sugar cane fields or banana plantations.
While African elephants also face decline, their population is 10 times more than their Asian counterparts, which number from 25,000 to 35,000 in their entire range.
Most African elephants live in savannas, where there is less conflict with humans, Kemf notes.
Poaching Asian elephants for their ivory tusks is a growing trend, especially in the past five years, the report found.
Contrary to their African cousins, female Asian elephants do not grow tusks. As a result, ivory poaching is aimed at males.
"We are seeing very imbalanced sex ratios between males and females," Kemf said.
Because elephants have a wide habitat range, protection is difficult.
Kemp emphasizes the need to link elephant reserves. "We need to provide elephants with a migratory corridor that avoids areas that are inhabited by humans."
WWF is calling on governments to take steps to ensure that national and transnational companies that exploit natural resources in elephant range comply with national legislation mandating biodiversity protection. They also want those companies to be held accountable for implementing sound forest-use practices.
WWF currently supports elephant conservation programs in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal and Malaysia.
"Elephants are keystone species in the ecosystem," Kemp noted. "If you protect them, you protect a large number of species and habitat."
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