The Asiatic elephant is in serious trouble.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates wild populations which are scattered throughout India, Nepal, Indonesia, China and a few other countries is between 25,600 to 32,750 individuals. That represents a stark decline over the last few decades and the results of habitat loss due to increased agriculture and related shootings as well as some ivory poaching.
Perhaps the single great obstacle facing Asiatic elephant recovery however is a lack of publicity.
You're probably thinking, "I've seen tons of television programs and articles on the decline of elephants. They get all kinds of publicity." Well, you're partially right.
African elephants are the darlings of the wildlife conservation world and dominate nearly all news coverage pachyderms receive. In preparation for this article, I did a google search for the words "endangered elephants". Skimming through the first 40 hits, I found only three that mentioned Asiatic elephants. Typing in "elephant conservation" only yielded seven of 40 detailing efforts to save Asia's ailing elephant herds.
You may be thinking, "Well, that's because African elephants are on the verge of extinction."
The WWF estimates there are between 470,000 and 690,000 African elephants left in the wild, which is nearly 20 times the best calculations for Asia's herd. African elephant numbers are increasing in some countries due to conservation efforts enacted by groups like WWF, Safari Club International and various African governments. When it was announced in 1989 that 100,000 elephants a year were being poached in Africa, the world responded with a level of activism rarely seen for wildlife on a global level. The results have been great for African elephants, which is wonderful but their cousins in Asia are suffering with little fanfare.
So, why the uneven attention to the these two unique elephant species?
Some if it could be the romantic view of the African elephant on the plains among lions, herd of wildebeests and zebras shared by much of the world. Africa's wildlife has always held a special place in public perception while Asia's animals are enshrouded in mystery.
Joseph Ratliff IV is the elephant handler of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and said that to many people an elephant is just an elephant.
"A lot of the general public doesn't know the difference which is why education on elephants is so important. We do a show with our two elephants and let people know there are differences and that Asiatic elephants are unique," he said.
Ratliff said letting people see these animals in the flesh makes a big difference in people's perception and concern.
"Allowing people to actually see elephants gives them such a greater respect for the animals and that can translate to better conservation efforts."
There is still hope for Asiatic elephants but the world needs to act now. Not to take anything away from successful conservation efforts in Africa but their elephants, in particular, the sub-Saharan population is not about to go extinct in the wild. In fact, governments there kill elephants every year because in some areas they exceed the carrying capacity of the land.
Asia's elephants on the other hand are declining at an alarming rate without much support from the conservation world. It's time for that change before it is indeed too late.