Wild Perspective: Helping Captive Elephants’ Wild Cousins

July 5, 2023 | By Nikki Sharp
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Over the past decade, I have witnessed the complex challenges faced by all of us working tirelessly to save the precious Asian elephant. The home range of Asian elephants has historically spanned across India, Southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka. Over the last few decades their populations have plummeted throughout this territory, and grievously, scientists have now classified their conservation status as ‘endangered’. Of the 40,000 Asian elephants estimated to be left, over 60% or 25-30,000 of them are living in India. The remaining populations are scattered in small pockets across different nations like Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar with increasing threats to their already scarce habitats. India has become the key battleground in the fight to save these magnificent animals.

Since India has by far the largest numbers of Asian elephants, I believe our best hope of conserving the species falls within India’s borders. That is why Wildlife SOS earnestly began our campaign more than 10 years ago to Save India’s Elephants. Before our work began, India had the foresight to enact some of the world’s strongest wildlife protection laws in the early 1970s. This proactive legislation and work from NGOs like ours has given Asian elephants a chance for long-term survival, not just in India, but in the world.

We can’t rely on having strong laws alone to save India’s elephants. Enforcement of these laws plays an equally vital role. This is one of several areas where we are able to help.

One of the important laws impacting conservation is that it’s illegal to buy and sell elephants. Yet, there is a disturbing demand for elephants used in captivity, entertainment, tourism, weddings, and temples, and this has created a lucrative black market to traffic elephants illegally. Since there is very limited captive breeding of elephants in India, the vast majority of elephants in captivity were likely taken from the wild. Currently there are about 2,700 captive elephants in India and most could trace their roots to being born wild in one of India’s jungles.

This origin is important to understand. Since buying and selling elephants is legally banned, the method by which they are coming into captivity is from the wild. Each individual that is captured impacts their wild numbers and brings them closer to extinction. 

So it is vital that enforcement agencies go after the criminals involved in elephant trafficking. But in order to do that, there needs to be a safe place to care for the rescued elephants after they are confiscated or seized. That is one of the key reasons our rescue centers play a critical role in helping to conserve India’s wild elephants. We provide elephants with care and a safe haven while the authorities prosecute the offenders in the courts. 

A convicted trafficker or a poacher who has an elephant seized from their possession faces up to 7 years of jail time, and has to deal with both legal and financial hardships. This sends a clear message that the government takes crimes against elephants seriously. These laws work as an important deterrent to discourage poaching and illegal trafficking.

In addition to helping individual elephants, we know our rescue centres aid in the enforcement of India’s wildlife trafficking laws, and we are expanding our facilities to care for more confiscated elephants.

To date, over 50 elephants have come to our rescue centres and hospital. We take great pride in not only providing these precious animals with their freedom but also knowing that their residency with us protects their wild cousins. Of course, we need to continue to protect habitats so that elephants always have a wild home in India, but we have also seen firsthand that helping captive elephants plays a significant role in saving Asian elephants from extinction. 

Nikki Sharp
Executive Director, Wildlife SOS

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