Tuesday, 29 July 2003

Where have all the elephants gone?

The second half of the 20th century saw the destruction of the huge herds of elephants that once roamed much of Africa. Despite the depredations of the ivory traders, until the 1950s, elephants still survived in reasonable numbers. But then, with the spread of independence among African states in the 1960s, there was also a dramatic rise in the armaments available. And one of the results of this ‘arms race’ was the destruction of elephants and rhinos. But parallel with the much publicised destruction of the African Elephant, the Asian Elephant was declining even faster. The population explosion of the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia has fragmented the elephant’s habitat to tiny remnants of the forests that once spread over much of the area. There are now probably less than one tenth of the number of Asian Elephants compared to African.

The Asian Elephant is slightly smaller, hairier, with smaller ears than the African, but another feature is that the females rarely have tusks and the males’ are generally smaller than those of the African Elephant. But this may not always have been the case. It has been suggested that this is the result of centuries of hunting for ivory, which has selectively removed larger tuskers from the population, altering the genetic structure.

The future for Asian Elephants is very gloomy. They need large areas in which to roam, and inevitably come into conflict with humans, and their agriculture. Even parks and reserves do not entirely solve the problem, as few of them can be large enough to preserve populations of significant genetic diversity. One solution is the creation of corridors between national parks and other protected areas.

The World Land trust is raising funds to help its partner, the Wildlife Trust of India, with an exciting new project to create elephant corridors in North-west India. Working with local communities, the project will set aside areas where the elephants can move safely, and alternative sources of income will be developed with the communities to off-set the losses caused by the elephants. It is also anticipated that this approach will benefit a wide range of other wildlife – such as primates and big cats, as they will undoubtedly use the corridors as well.

The cost of creating the corridors has been estimated at around £25 an acre and the World Land Trust is ‘marketing’ acres as an ideal gift – for the person who wants to do something really positive for elephants, and also be able to feel they have done something tangible. The campaign will not be launched until September, (with a target of £30,000, it’s modest and should be achievable). But meanwhile, if any readers of this column know of a company or individual who would like to sponsor this work, I would be very pleased to hear from them. This is only the first of several corridors, but we anticipate it will prove successful a long-term strategy.

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