The Plight of the Asian Elephant
“More than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but numbers have fallen by at least 50% over the last three generations, and they are still in decline today” –World Wide Fund for Nature
My relationship with the Asian Elephant
As I was never fond of going to zoos or circuses, most of my first human-wildlife encounters came through television shows like educational documentaries or other informative outlets. Unlike zoos, documentaries show animals behaving naturally, teaching others about their habitats, endangerment as well as conservation efforts. Through these shows, I remember becoming intrigued by elephants as I noticed that there was a sharp contrast between them in the wild and in captivity. For instance, in the wild, elephants had freedom and were most in touch with their natural behaviour and habitat. However, in captivity, they were seemingly controlled to perform acts beyond their natural tendencies. They clearly lived an undignified life and lacked any rights under human jurisdiction.
Fast forward several years later and my relationship with elephants seemingly ended. Despite the fact that I still refused to visit places that used animals for human amusement, I was still oblivious to the complexities of these injustices especially in other parts of the world. It was not until I went on a trip to Thailand that I witnessed firsthand how Asian elephants were captured from the wild, used and abused. I fell victim to “The Toilet Assumption” as Marjorie Spiegel and sociologist Philip Slater noted. Any knowledge that is unwanted from difficulties to complexities will disappear if they are not in our immediate view. 1 Evidently, my close contact with the Asian elephant being mistreated changed the way I understood my relationships with animals. Essentially, if I truly loved animals and elephants than I had to do more to end their exploitation. I had to actively spread awareness through understanding the underlying causes of their abuse.
- Scientific Name: Elephas maximus indicus
- Status: Endangered
- Population: 40-50,000
- Height: 6.5– 11.5 feet
- Weight: around 11,000 pounds
- Length: around 21 feet
- Habitat: Forests
- Asian elephants are extremely sociable, forming groups of six to seven related females that are led by the oldest female known as the matriarch.
- Asian elephants eat up to 150kg of food and defecate up to 18 times a day. Their diet includes grasses, large amounts of tree bark, roots, leaves, small stems as well as cultivated crops such as bananas, rice and sugarcane. Elephants are always close to a source of fresh water because they need to drink at least once a day.
- Only male Asian elephants have tusks and female ‘tushes’ are hardly visible. 2
- Asian elephants show empathy and are known to mourn their dead. They also exhibit a cognitive capacity to recognize distant relatives and companions. 3
Habitat loss and fragmentation
Since Asia is the most densely populated continent, a vast majority of natural ecosystems have been lost to human advances from urbanization.
According to Global Sanctuary for Elephants, to support such a large creature requires large spaces of land. Land that can sustain their dietary needs, social needs and of course, their growing habitats. Asian elephants differ from African elephants as they are forest dwellers. Before the acts of deforestation for urbanization this meant hundreds and thousands of acres. However, today they are constrained by human progresses that take over forests. 4
Because their land is continually overtaken by humans they are now coming in closer contact to them. Although some acknowledge that elephants are gentle and most notably intelligent like any living creature, elephants also have aggressive tendencies. For example, researchers noticed that male elephants go through a period called ‘musth’ where their strong urge to mate makes them aggressive. 5
So, some elephants are not just looked upon as beautiful and admirable. Instead, they can often be considered a nuisance and most importantly, dangerous.
After all, since they are large creatures they can easily destroy fields, homes and sometimes kill humans. Thus, when it comes to sociopolitical factors like how these losses are intertwined with Asian livelihoods, elephants and their declining habitats are no longer considered.
Poaching and capture
However, the destruction of elephant habitats and their close contact to humans is not the only concern when it comes to conserving these species. Although poaching and hunting for meat and skin is not as common in Asia when compared to Africa, Asian elephants are usually captured for the tourism industry. In fact, according to WWF, 30 percent of the remaining Asian elephant population endure a life of captivity. As I witnessed in Thailand, this can have detrimental effects on the species especially when a life in captivity means rigorous training and hard labour for the elephant.
- In defense of slavery. (1997). In M. Spiegel (Author), The dreaded comparison (pp. 10-13). New York City, NY: Mirror Books/IDEA. (Excerpted from Animals as philosophical and ethical subjects, The animal reader, pp. 3-51, by L. Kalof & A. Fitzgerald, Ed., 2014, London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic)
- Asian elephant: Overview [Blog post]. (n.d.). Retrieved from World Wildlife Fund website: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/asian-elephant
- BBC Wildlife. (2008, April 7). Elephants grieving [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=C5RiHTSXK2A&t=27s
- GSfE. (2014, May 18). Space, how much is enough? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Global Sanctuary for Elephants website: http://www.globalelephants.org/space-much-enough/
- Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) [Blog post]. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wildscreen Arkive website: http://www.arkive.org/asian-elephant/elephas-maximus/