Asiatic elephants in peril

wcs elephant 72By S. K. Basu

Saved from the grips of the merciless ivory trade, Asiatic elephants across South East Asia are once again facing a serious threat of endangering their wild populations beyond recovery. This new threat is so widespread, devastating and deadly that experts are already showing serious concern regarding the bleak future that threatens Asiatic elephants over the next two decades. The ban of ivory trade has opened an alternate market of elephant body parts in mainland China that is seriously endangering the future of this majestic land mammal. The skin of Asiatic elephants is being harvested after their indiscriminate poaching for the alarming rise in demands for natural jewellery manufactured from such elephant skin. The helpless animals are poached first by highly organized poaching units with sophisticated firearms, latest GPS tracking and high powered communication system like satellite phones and other advanced tracking and./or communication devices. Following that the skin of the animals are removed with precision and exported to China via illegal trade routes for manufacturing special elephant skin beads that are dyed with specific coloring agents and then made into specialty jewellery items like beaded necklace and bracelets and other expensive fancy items. Such fashionable jewellery items are fetching high economic returns from their customers in the illegal wildlife black markets operating in China and in some pockets of South East Asia.

This new trends has caught wind too fast and has been impacting wild Asiatic elephant populations and subpopulations across South East Asia. Previously, only selected males with large tusks were targeted by poachers for the ivory trade. Female Asiatic elephants do not produce tusks unlike their African cousins. Decades of poaching generated hunting pressure so drastic on populations of wild elephants that bull elephants with large dusks are not so common in their wild Asiatic herd populations any more. But the skin trade is gender neutral; and hence male, female juvenile, sub adult, baby as well as old and sick elephants are all being targeted by the poachers in their relentless hunt for elephant skin for the novelty jewellery industrial markets in China. As a consequence a very serious, detrimental and irreversible hunting pressure is being exerted across wild Asiatic elephant populations in South East Asia exerting irreparable damage to the sustenance of many herds and pushing them towards extinction; if this is going to continue unrestricted. Removing young calves and breeding females from the wild herd populations is going to exert serious pupation pressure on these herds with bleak future awaiting them in the future; as there will be less chances of individuals removed being replaced by new and vigorous stock for the future.

Elephant carcasses with clinically removed skin are showing up even in the very remote parts of South East Asia indicating that the problem is deep rooted and is slowly getting out of control. The poor management of forests and poor conditions of the forest and wildlife security across the region is further deteriorating the process at an unprecedented and alarming rate. The situation has been worrying most elephant conservation agencies around the globe. Some reports are suggesting that the poaching of wild Asiatic elephant herds have surpassed that of the African elephant herds over the past few years in an exponential manner within a very short period of time. All the elephant inhabiting nations across South East Asia are facing the heat. But the situation is worst in Myanmar due to its close proximity to international border with China; and the poaching pressure on wild herds of Asiatic elephants across Myanmar even in remote and inaccessible elephant habitats are raising by leaps and bounds annually. Unless something serious is attempted in Myanmar and that too very soon; the wild herds may bid adieu forever from the region.

The situation is alarming for neighboring South Asia particularly for countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh close to China. Once the poaching gangs start operating at an industrial scale in South Asian countries; the toll will be several folds on wild herds of Asiatic elephants in South Asia. All these countries need to act now before the problem hit their shore by working together as a joint force in dealing with such monumental challenges through mechanisms like Joint Conservation Initiative (JCI). The governments across South Asia with significant wildlife population and rich biodiversity must act now before the poaching plague hit their shores. However, this is not just the case of Asiatic elephants alone. The monumental negative impacts on different species of wildlife populations as well as major and minor forest resources around the globe through intra and intercontinental poaching and illegal trafficking of forest products, live wildlife and various wildlife body parts into China is getting worse by the day.

The situation is so worrisome that several countries impacted by wildlife poaching due to the powerful and politically influential illegal wildlife markets operating in China have been compelled to approach Beijing to take suitable steps to curb this massive billion dollars plus illegal industry operating openly in the country. Although the Chinese government has promised to take serious action, the reality is that nothing truly is visible on the grounds. The economic and political power helping such illegal wildlife markets to operate in China fuelled by the frenzy for bush meat, wildlife trophies and wildlife body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicinal practices among the local customers is playing havoc across the globe with respect to biodiversity conservation. Three continents rich in biodiversity, namely Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as economically under developed Eastern Europe have been worst impacted by this illegal wildlife trade and trafficking.

Several species of endangered aquatic (both marine and fresh water) and terrestrial invertebrates; as well as amphibians, reptiles, fishes, birds and mammals have been drastically impacted to the point of no return around the globe due to this factor. The worst impacted being mostly the economically backward; but biodiversity rich developing and under developed nations in both hemispheres. Without covert political support such illegal wildlife trade and trafficking markets could neither operate nor survive in China. The Chinese government must act strongly, without delay on these illegal wildlife markets and eradicate them completely. Unless China takes responsibility and act diligently to cut down wildlife trade and trafficking operating within her borders; or is pushed and/or forced by the international as well as regional community and conservation agencies; the global future for several wildlife species (like Asiatic and African elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, endangered pangolin, primates, bears, bats, deer, antelopes, rodents, wild sheep and goats are all at stake to name only a handful) is in complete jeopardy in the not so distant future.

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