(Reuters) — Asia’s elephants once roamed across nine million square kilometers of forests from the Iranian coast to the Indian subcontinent, Java, Sumatra and Borneo, and China.
Now extinct in west Asia, Java and most of China, about 40,000 to 50,000 remain in pockets of forest in 13 states.
About 15,000 Asian elephants live in captivity as work animals, mostly in India, Myanmar and Thailand. By contrast, there are only about 500 captive African elephants, mostly in western zoos, and a wild population of 400,000-660,000 animals.
Here are some facts about Asia’s wild elephants and the threats facing them, listed by estimated population size:
* INDIA: 23,900-32,900. Home to 60 percent of Asia’s elephants, India has the highest death rate from human-elephant conflict, with 200-250 people and 100 elephants killed annually. Habitat fragmentation, poaching of tusked males, and patchy forest law enforcement are problems, but numbers are rebounding.
* MYANMAR: 3,000-4,000. Most large herds live in forested hills by the borders with Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand. Wild capture was banned in 1994, but captives are still taken to join 4,500 working elephants in logging camps.
* THAILAND: 3,000-3,700. Numbers dropped sharply with human population growth and forest clearances. Legal ivory sales from captive elephants allegedly lets dealers ‘launder’ illegal ivory.
* SRI LANKA: 2,100-3,000. The stars of many local festivals, herds have been pushed to the southwest of the island due to intense conflict over crops, and blown up by landmines.
* INDONESIA: 1,180-1,557 Sumatra. No Borneo estimate. Rapid forest conversions has hit Sumatran and Bornean elephants hard. From 1985, hundreds were taken to Sumatran ‘Elephant Training Centres’ to stop conflict. Many died. Intense conflict remains.
* MALAYSIA: 1,250-1,466 Peninsula and 1,100-1,600 Borneo. Hundreds have been removed to national parks since the 1970s, to stop raids on plantations as jungles were cleared. Translocation has ensured healthy elephant populations.
* LAOS: 780-1,200. Known as the Land of a Million Elephants, herds suffer hunting and habitat loss from logging, agriculture and hydroelectric projects. Lack of funds hampers conservation.
* BHUTAN: 400-600. Confined to southern plains and foothills elephants are mostly seasonal migrants, crossing to Bhutan to escape India’s monsoons, and migrating back to India in summer.
* CAMBODIA: 250-600. Elephants helped build ancient Angkor Wat, but also hunted for ivory and meat, blown up by land mines in the civil war and killed for raiding crops. Relatively good habitat makes them better placed than others for a recovery.
* CHINA: 200-250. Small but viable herds live in southern Yunnan province. Numbers are rising, thanks to reproduction and immigration of Laos herds. China is also a large illegal manufacturer and trader of ivory, mostly from African elephants.
* BANGLADESH: 196-227. The human population explosion sparked intense competition for land and conflicts with elephants, which now live only in isolated areas. A lack of active conservation projects makes Bangladesh’s elephants highly threatened.
* NEPAL: 100-170. Many roam between India and Nepal, where rapidly rising human populations devastated lowland forest herds. Small herds have stabilized in protected reserves.
* VIETNAM: 76-94. Hunting, forest clearances and warfare that saw forests bombed and poisoned with Agent Orange and other defoliants, made elephants functionally extinct. Conservationists hope inviable herds will cross to Cambodia and Laos.
Sources: Reuters, Interview with Professor Raman Sukumar, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, EleAid Web Site (http://www.eleaid.com)
Writing by Gillian Murdoch; Singapore Editorial Reference Unit