Asia's Elephant Wars

Nearly a fifth of the world's human population lives within the range of the Asian elephant; how long can the two species coexist?

  • Anthony Mecir
  • Oct 01, 2002
NEAR MIDNIGHT, as the village slumbers, Goonda slips out of the forest like a one-man commando unit. He smashes through the rock-hard rear wall of Lilo Das's house and snatches a sack bulging with milled rice. Women and children flee, screaming. Das and other men grab homemade bamboo spears and torches. Guards fire shots into the air.

But Goonda, "the hoodlum," cannot be stopped. Amid din and flames, he rams into a village shrine, then demolishes half of a second house, nearly trampling a sleeping family of seven. The hulk next powers his way into the kitchen of a third house, pilfering food readied for a New Year's festival. After an hour-long rampage, he finally vanishes into the hills.

Now the village of Panbari in India's northeastern state of Assam resembles the eerie aftermath of battle. Villagers point to crumpled walls, toppled fences, a corrugated iron roof knocked askew, a grove of felled banana trees--all the work of a single elephant. "We hope he doesn't come again tonight so we can sleep in peace," says Das wearily.

A place of poor farmers and petty traders, Panbari is on the frontlines of a heart-rending war, one that's being waged in villages, fields and plantations regionwide between onetime friends--land-hungry man and simply hungry Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant. The conflict is unlikely to end in an amicable peace treaty. In all 13 Asian nations where elephants are still found, mushrooming human populations mean shriveling habitat for elephants, as well as heightened conflict between people and animals. In Indochina--where elephant losses are most dramatic--hunting, particularly for the ivory trade, is also decimating the species. "Over the past few years, around 5,000 wild elephants--about 10 percent of the remaining population--have been killed in Asia," says Elizabeth Kemf, an Asian elephant expert for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "Meanwhile, hundreds of people have lost their lives as humans and elephants fight over space."

The origin of today's crisis is not hard to fathom, and one country, Thailand, is a typical example. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with some 90 percent of its land under forest cover, Thailand could harbor an estimated 300,000 wild and captive elephants. One hundred years later, the human population has soared from fewer than 8 million to 63 million, and the green canopy has shrunk to less than 20 percent of its former area. According to Kemf, wild elephant numbers have also plunged--to just 2,000. Even so, the nation's devastated forest habitat is inadequate to house and feed the animals that remain.


AGE-OLD BONDS: In Kandy, Sri Lanka, an elephant participates in the annual Festival of the Tooth--which features a procession carrying Buddha's tooth. Since they were domesticated some 4,000 years ago, elephants have played major roles in culture and everyday life throughout Asia. Today such relationships are eroding. Says one expert, "We in India have had a tradition of interaction with elephants going back millennia, and now man has decided to destroy it."

For their part, elephants are no slouches when it comes to consumption. Each day, a single adult spends up to 18 hours munching down more than 500 pounds of grasses, roots, leaves, bark and fruits--the equivalent in weight to a human eating 1,000 steaks. The animal also gulps more than 30 gallons of water a day as it scours the landscape like a mechanical harvester.

Given the ravenous appetites of both species, and the resulting battles over dwindling resources, casualties have been high on both sides. In India--which houses Asia's single largest wild elephant population--some 200 people are killed by elephants annually, while 120 to 150 elephants die at the hands of Homo sapiens. Throughout the continent, understandably angry rural residents electrocute the animals with high-tension wires or fell them with guns, poison-tipped arrows and rice wine--an elephant favorite--laced with insecticides. Poachers and human-induced accidents add to the toll.

It's no wonder that little remains of an Asian elephant empire that once stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Yellow River in northern China. According to WWF and IUCN--The World Conservation Union, only about 35,000 to 45,000 Asian elephants survive in the wild today, less than a tenth the estimated total of their better-known cousins, the African elephants. Countries such as India, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia and Sri Lanka still house greatly diminished but viable populations, while prospects for long-term survival in impoverished and war-scarred Indochina--Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia--are gloomy. In the past decade alone, elephant numbers have plunged by as much as 95 percent to fewer than 80 individuals in Vietnam. The animals have long vanished from West Asia and all but a small southern corner of China. Altogether, the Asian elephant inhabits some 169,885 square miles today, an area roughly the size of Sweden.

Beyond body counts, what is most tragic about the decline of the Asian elephant is that for thousands of years the animal has played a significant role in culture, religion and daily life throughout Asia. Today those age-old bonds are about to snap. In the words of D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury, an elephant expert for IUCN--The World Conservation Union, "We in India have had a tradition of interaction with elephants going back millennia, and now man has decided to destroy it."


IN A JAM: Elephants such as these females and tuskless males at Lake Periyar, India, need lots of space. Yet people are squeezing them into ever-smaller habitat. The animals also have healthy appetites. A typical adult needs up to 500 pounds of vegetation and more than 30 gallons of water daily.

Carved seals from the Indus Valley showing elephants with cloth draped over their backs suggest that the species was domesticated at least 4,000 years ago. The animals proved useful to rich and poor alike. A humble peasant might use an elephant to journey through otherwise impassable jungle while his king marshaled the creatures for battle against enemies or ordered them to stomp criminals to death.

But one by one, the elephant lost its jobs--as truck, battle tank, palace pet and, most recently, logger. Only in Myanmar, with nearly half of Asia's 15,000 captive elephants, are the animals still used to haul felled trees over trackless terrain, an ironic situation in which elephants help destroy the very forests upon which their survival depends. Elsewhere, the once prized possession and status symbol increasingly becomes an economic burden to its owner. One of the most pathetic sights in Bangkok is an elephant tramping through polluted streets, trunk extended, begging for money it can no longer earn for its master in the countryside.

Elephants still play a role in Asian religions. One of the most popular Hindu gods is the elephant-headed Ganesha, who, as "God of Wisdom and Remover of Obstacles," is worshipped at the start of important endeavors. Shrines devoted to Ganesha still dot the region today. Among Buddhists, white elephants figure prominently. While she was pregnant with Gautama Buddha, for example, his mother dreamed that a white elephant entered her side. She was told it was a sign that she would give birth to a great man.

Despite the creatures' traditional importance, Asian elephants long have been subjected to violence by hunters who seek their ivory, meat, hides or merely the adrenaline rush of killing such large and powerful animals. "Nagaland has turned its elephant population into steaks. It's meat on the hoof for many Mizos," says Lahiri-Choudhury of this northeastern Indian state where tribal groups still eat the animal's meat. Ivory poaching is even more widespread, with gunmen--often backed by illegal syndicates--stalking tuskers inside national parks and penetrating even remote refuges such as Cambodia's Cardamon Mountains. Conducting a preliminary survey in the region, Flora and Fauna International discovered that at least five animals were recently slain for their tusks by Cambodian and Thai soldiers armed with high-powered rifles. Largely spared human incursions while the country suffered through decades of war, the Cardamons are one of Indochina's last elephant strongholds.

Photo: © TED WOOD

PACHYDERM POWER: An elephant hauls a heavy log on a teak farm in southern India (above); elsewhere, the animals have been made unwitting accomplices in the destruction of their natural forest homes.

Although India outlawed killing elephants in 1879, ivory poachers continue to take such a heavy toll that sex ratios in some areas are down to 1 male for every 100 or more females, a situation that worries scientists concerned with the species' genetic viability. Unlike African elephants, not all male and no female Asian elephants possess tusks. These days the sight of a lordly tusker striding across the south Indian landscape is sadly rare.

Still, it's the turf war between humans and elephants that represents the greatest long-term threat. Today elephant wars are being waged in nearly every Asian nation, as human populations continue to push into the very heart of what was recently elephant country. In Vietnam's Central Highlands, for example, an influx of migrants is converting the region's remaining jungles into fields of coffee and pepper. In Sri Lanka, the Mahaweli River Valley Project has wiped out vast areas of lowland forests. And in Malaysia and Indonesia, great swaths of tropical forest are being replaced by industrial-scale rubber, oil palm, pulp and coconut plantations.


HUNTED: Beyond habitat loss, another intractable problem is the human appetite for elephant meat, tusks and other body parts, such as these offered for sale at a traditional medicine market in Myanmar (Burma). Ivory poaching is especially widespread. Gunmen, often backed by illegal syndicates, pursue tusked males into even the most remote refuges.

Elephants are not giving up their homelands without a fight. On the once densely forested Indonesian island of Sumatra, the rampaging behemoths wiped out nearly 2.5 million acres of cropland--some $6 million worth of damage--between 1993 and 1995. (A year later, 12 elephants were found dead, poisoned by Sumatran oil palm plantation workers.) The most intense and dramatic conflicts take place in India, with 19,000 to 29,500 wild elephants living among a seething one billion humans. For many months each year, villagers across the country live in a state of siege, some spending every night sleepless in "watch huts" erected in the fields to sound warnings of approaching raiders. In years when attacks are especially frequent, they build tree houses. Last year two dozen tribespeople in the eastern state of Orissa were forced to spend several nights in the treetops when a 60-strong elephant herd caught a whiff of homemade rice wine and went on an extended binge.

Solutions to the problem are elusive, due largely to the animals' intelligence. Elephants rarely fall for the same trick twice, so firecrackers, drums, torches and similar measures ultimately prove ineffective. Some villagers have tried trenches and electric wires, but with limited success. When an electric fence was erected around the Holongapar gibbon sanctuary in Assam, for example, shocked elephants initially ran off screaming. But coming back to sniff and ponder later, they knocked down the posts and blithely walked over them. Rangers then took out many of the stakes, only to witness the animals grabbing branches with their trunks and beating down the wires.

Occasionally, clashes end in a cease-fire, such as one declared recently near Kui Buri National Park in southern Thailand. After years of trying to discourage the animals, farmers failed to halt some 100 elephants that were routinely emerging from the park to raid their pineapple fields. "Once they know how good the fruit tastes, nothing can stop them from coming back," explains provincial administrator Tinat Poolpipat, adding that locals are now planning to switch to dairy farming and ecotourism.

But such peaceful outcomes are rare. Battling the odds, governments, international organizations and local groups have launched conservation efforts in every country where Asian elephants are found. Last summer, for example, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society teamed up with farmers, park rangers and local conservationists to create "crop protection units" in Lampung, Indonesia. Sharing guard duty in areas hit hard by elephants, participants stationed in watchtowers use trip wires to alert them when elephants enter an area. Guards then use deterrents such as sirens, spotlights, firecrackers, whistles and--for particularly aggressive animals--vehicles or teams of trained elephants to drive intruders back into the forest. Soon ropes coated in chili-impregnated grease--a technique that's worked well in parts of Africa--will be added to their arsenal.

In the most ambitious effort, WWF's Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy targets eight elephant hotspots in India, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for comprehensive, integrated programs to save the species. Still in its early stages, the complex plan includes land-use planning, study of migration patterns, adequate compensation for farmers, tougher anti-poaching laws and finding ways, such as ecotourism, that rural populations can benefit from the proximity of elephants.

Perhaps the greatest hope, though, stems from the Asian people's abiding, deeply rooted respect and reverence for elephants. At Panbari, India, where Goonda wreaked such devastation, nine villagers have died over the past few years in elephant raids. The creatures wipe out as much as two thirds of the rice planted for its 300 households. One family has had to rebuild its elephant-battered home three times. And yet, rather than revenge, a sense that humans are the guilty parties prevails, along with a desire, if possible, for peaceful coexistence.

"None of us hate elephants because if we do they will read your heart and rest assured will visit you that night," says Rupeswar Das, Lilo's strong, handsome nephew. "This is such a huge animal, so it needs a lot of food, and there is not enough in the forest. If an elephant comes and does some damage to us, it is not they who have done anything wrong, but we who have done something wrong and are feeling the wrath of God."

Standing by the lone surviving jackfruit tree in his stripped, uprooted orchard, Lilo Das nods in agreement. Asked who will eat the fruit first--his family or the elephants--Das smiles, and offers his frontline view on Asia's elephant wars: "This was the land of the elephant, and we people came and took away their land."

Anthony Mecir writes about wildlife and conservation from his home base in Southeast Asia.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates