The Asian Elephant Conservation Program
Photograph: Flori van Essen
Photograph: Zoo Archives
Photograph: Flori van Essen
Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) - also known as Indian Elephants – are the largest living land mammals in Asia. Asian elephants formerly ranged from West Asia along the Iranian coast into the Indian subcontinent, eastwards into South-east Asia including Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, and into China. This former range covered over 9 million km²! Asian elephants are now extinct in West Asia, Java, and most of China and today they are found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. For thousands of years, human beings have used Asian Elephants for labor and transportation, especially in the timber industry.
Currently, there are only around 35,000 Asian elephants left in the world. They have been classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature because their population has declined by at least 50% over the last 70 years, and their habitat has been reduced in terms of both size and quality. Because elephants require much larger areas of natural habitat than most other terrestrial mammals in Asia, they are one of the first species to suffer the consequences of habitat fragmentation and destruction - the main threats to the Asian elephant today - which are driven by an expanding human population (they live in a region of the world with the densest human population which is growing at a rate of 1-3% annually), and lead in turn to increasing conflicts between humans and elephants when elephants eat or trample crops. Because of its great size and large food requirements, the elephant cannot co-exist with people in areas where agriculture is the dominant form of land-use. Hundreds of people and elephants are killed annually as a result of such conflicts making it one of the largest conservation challenges in Asia today.
Poaching is a major threat to elephants in Asia too, because, although some males and all females lack tusks, elephants are poached for a variety of other products (including meat and leather) in addition to ivory. Having said that, poaching of elephants for ivory is a serious problem in some parts of Asia for example in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in southern India, ivory poaching has dramatically skewed adult sex ratios which leads to reduced genetic variation and consequently lower rates of breeding success.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo participates in the international breeding program for this species and in 1996, Gabi, son of Tamar, was born at the Zoo after a successful artifical insemination procedure with semen from a bull elephant named Emmett from Whipsnade Zoo in England. The long and expensive procedure was very complex and only the fourth insemination attempt was successful. Gabi weighed a healthy 100 kg when he was born and was transferred to Gaziantep Zoo in Tureky in 2010 as part of the same international breeding and conservation program.