Asian elephants face almost certain extinction in almost every place they exist in the modern world. Only 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, scattered across fragmented habitats in 13 Asian countries.
Elephant habitats have been severely reduced by human development. The greatest threat to Asian elephants may be habitat loss and, inevitably, resulting conflicts with farmers and plantation owners. Although not without precipitating human casualties, elephants always lose this struggle for survival, and are shot, poisoned, run over by trains and trucks, or simply starved to death.
Other serious threats include ivory poaching and illegal capture of wild elephants to supplement work or tourism camps. The cute elephant baby posing for a picture with tourists on the streets of an Asian city all too often is a baby caught in the wild to coerce tourists into a close encounter. Its mother most likely was shot because she was in the way of the capture. Elephant babies can be purchased for only $10,000 along the Thailand–Burma border.
Despite the continued decline and increasing threats to the remaining wild populations, little information is available on the true number of elephants in the wild, the extent of suitable wild lands for the conservation of these endangered populations, and which areas have the best potential for long-term conservation of Asian elephants. Zoo researchers at the Conservation GIS Lab are addressing many of these questions through high-tech mapping using satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and even real-time tracking of wild elephant herds using satellite telemetry collars.
A recent regional conservation assessment conducted by researchers at the lab demonstrates that only 55 percent of the species' range contains suitable habitat. Most of the elephant ranges are small and fragmented. Only six ranges appear to be large enough to support Asian elephant populations in the long term (more than 100 years), each covering approximately 20,000 square kilometers.
The National Zoo works to save Asian elephants and the natural habitats they require for survival. The three pillars of our conservation and science program are:
The ultimate goal of our conservation program is to save Asian elephants from extinction in the wild. The greatest threats to the survival of wild Asian elephants are habitat loss and associated people-elephant conflict. Yet it is appalling how little we know about basic elephant ecology or the causes and mechanisms that drive people-elephant conflicts and how they can be mitigated.
The National Zoo research focuses on three priorities for the conservation of wild elephants:
Working with local and regional experts, we will establish a range-wide satellite-tracking program to provide essential baseline information on area requirements, habitat selection, and movement patterns of wild elephants. Learning about temporal and spatial patterns of individuals and groups of elephants will provide insights into how and why people-elephant conflict (such as crop raiding) exists, and potentially how to mitigate it. The National Zoo will provide training and infrastructure to established scientists in Southeast Asia to conduct their own tracking projects.
People and elephants have coexisted in Asia for thousands of years. The recent rise in people-elephant conflict is due to dramatic changes in how people interact with land and elephants. Using modern geospatial analysis tools, these changes will be detected via satellite imagery and preventive actions developed. We will work with local and regional experts to identify and implement new land-use strategies that will minimize conflict and benefit elephants and people.
We will also develop new tools for managing conflict in areas with high numbers of people and elephants. For example, the National Zoo's Conservation GIS Laboratory will develop a satellite-based early warning system that will demonstrate where rapid habitat loss is occurring. This information will be provided to Asian governments and conservation organizations to inform their Asian elephant conservation work.
While the work will be performed at the Zoo's state-of-the-art Conservation GIS Laboratory, we will work closely with Asian scientists to provide this service to ongoing projects and organizations. These land-use strategies and mitigation tools will ultimately become the standard for managing people-elephant conflict, and for increasing elephant survival. Initial projects will focus on Sri Lanka, a country with the highest levels of people-elephant conflict.
We have little systematic information about the condition of wild elephant populations and their habitats. Using newly available genetic and ecological field techniques such as fingerprinting, genetic mark-recapture, and satellite-tracking, we will work with local partners to advance current knowledge about Asian elephant landscape ecology and population biology. This information will be essential for tracking the status of wild elephant populations and determining whether we are making progress in saving the species.
Current research and conservation projects already reflect these priorities and include studies on the ranging behavior of wild elephants, the sustainability of the remaining populations, and the threats to elephants and their habitats.