Forged in Ancient History, Bond With Elephants Runs Deep in Asia

HOUSTON, July 18, 2013 — Elephant populations in Southeast Asia have declined steeply over the past 30 years, but the news is better in India and Sri Lanka, where numbers are stable. There the problem is escalating elephant intrusion into settled areas, says Dr. Raman Sukumar.

“Some elephants simply must be captured and removed from the wild,” he said, acknowledging this is a controversial course. But in India alone some 450 people a year are killed by elephants, which also damage crops.

Sukumar, who is Professor of Ecology at the Indian Institute of Science and honorary director of the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre in Bangalore, India, delivered his state of the Asian elephant address at a program co-presented by Asia Society Texas Center and the Houston Zoo. His new book is The Story of Asia’s Elephants.

Before turning to the present Sukumar presented an illustrated survey of the long human-elephant bond in Asia, particularly South Asia.

The earliest evidence of tamed elephants dates to the Indus Valley Civilization more than 4,500 years ago, he said. In South Asia the massive animals have a long history as weapons of war. The first use of elephants in battle dates from the 6th century BCE, and the Mahabhararta, the great Sanskrit epic of ancient India, features fighting elephants.

In the West the best-known instance of war elephants in action was Battle of Hydaspes River, where Alexander the Great defeated the elephant army of King Porus in 326 BCE. Sukumar said that rumors of larger elephant armies across the Ganges River may have figured in the Macedonians’ decision to retreat from India.

It was Buddhism that first elevated elephants to sacred status, Sukumar said. Hinduism transformed the animal into the beloved deity Ganesha. Killing elephants for sport arrived with the British, as did their use in logging. Indian nationalists used the elephant as a potent symbol in their fight for independence from Great Britain.

Today there are 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild, with the largest number in India and Sri Lanka. There are 15,000 Asian elephants in captivity.

Poaching and loss or fragmentation of habitat due to mining, farming, and other human activity constitute the biggest threat to the animals, Sukumar said.

Adopting land-use patterns that minimize elephant-human conflict is the key, he said. He noted that elephants, being highly intelligent animals, prefer eating crops to foraging in the forest if given the chance. He estimated that 1 percent of the elephants cause a disproportionate number of the problems and might have to be captured and taken out of the wild.

Asian elephants do have one important thing going for them, Sukumar said. In India, despite their occasional depredations, they are admired, even loved.

Reported by Fritz Lanham


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