Population Viability: Assessing the Impacts of Live Capture on Burma's Wild Elephants

Asian elephants have long taken center stage in people's imagination and fascination. Interactions between people and elephants were recorded in paintings and books as long as 4,000 years ago. Over the centuries, elephants have been valuable allies to peoplealways to society's advantage, and often leading to the elephants' own demise. Today, people still encounter elephants in many contexts, in the wild, in jungle elephant camps, and in zoos. Despite these close connections, elephants now face almost certain extinction in almost every place they exist in the modern world.

Approximately 15,000 captive Asian elephantsone-third of all living Asian elephantsare found in timber camps, temples, and private camps throughout Asia. Most of them face a dire fate. With reduced revenues in timber operations and declining forest cover, timber elephants increasingly face unemployment. They are condemned to roam the streets, posing with their mahouts to cadge a baksheesh (handout) from passing tourists.

Myanmar has one of the largest captive populations of Asian elephants. Elephants are the still the most effective tool used in logging, and as many as 3,000 elephants are believed to be kept in government-run logging camps, while an additional 3,000 are privately owned. These captive populations are not self-sustaining, however. For decades they have been supplemented through the capture of live elephants from the wild. Although it has been suggested that this continued live-capture poses a serious threat to Myanmar's remaining wild elephant populations, no one knows what its impact is. However, a recent National Elephant Conservation Workshop in Myanmar indicates that instead of 10,000 remaining wild elephants, there may be fewer than 2,000 elephants remaining in Myanmar's forests.

Modeling Population Dynamics of Captive Elephants

Using birth- and death-rate data, the survival of the captive elephant population in Myanmar can be predicted over time. Preliminary models have shown that, without supplementation from the wild, the captive population would decline constantly.

Researchers are now assessing the levels of supplementation needed to maintain current captive numbers and what impact this might be having in the wild through off-take of live animals. This information can also be used to study how intensive capture programs in the past might have contributed to the suspected decline in Myanmar's wild elephant populations.