Capture and hunting of Asian elephants

I have described the historical depletion of elephant populations in Asia, chiefly in the Indian subcontinent, through their capture and taming for use in armies (chapter 2). This account looks more closely at the record of captures during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While this record is by no means complete, it gives a fair picture of the magnitude of captures and their impact on Asian elephant populations.

The methods of capturing elephants in the Indian subcontinent have varied between the two main elephant-bearing regions—the northeast and the south. In the northeast, elephants were captured through kheddahs, by driving entire herds into stockades; also used was the selective capture of subadult elephants through mela shikar, noosing with the help of trained captive elephants. In the south, elephants were captured in the erstwhile Madras Presidency through trapping in pits. These were usually solitary animals or mother-offspring pairs. In the princely state of Mysore, however, elephants were captured by the kheddah method, which was introduced there by G. P. Sanderson (fig. 8.15). The consequence was that the rate of capture was far higher in the northeast during the nineteenth century, when at least 4,000 elephants were captured within a decade, and again between 1937 and 1980, with over 10,000 elephants captured or killed. In the south, the systematic kheddahs of Mysore captured just under 2,000 elephants over the period of a century. The pit captures in other southern regions took even fewer elephants.

For both the north and south, the records of elephants shot to control crop depredation have not been systematically brought together. One record

Figure 8.15

Elephants captured at the Mysore kheddah of 1968 being roped with the help of trained captive elephants or koonkies. (Photo courtesy of T.N.A. Perumal.)

Figure 8.15

Elephants captured at the Mysore kheddah of 1968 being roped with the help of trained captive elephants or koonkies. (Photo courtesy of T.N.A. Perumal.)

from the Wyanad in the south suggests that a single person shot about 300 elephants, mostly cows and calves, during the mid-nineteenth century when the government offered rewards for the elimination of elephants. In 1873, the Elephant Preservation Act of the Madras Presidency brought a halt to the regular killing of elephants on government land, although they could still be eliminated on private lands. This act was extended in 1879 to the whole of India and eventually to Burma (Myanmar), seemingly to ensure regular supplies to the government of this important resource. Over the next hundred years, the subcontinent did provide a rich harvest of elephants from the wild for taming. The figures I have compiled indicate that anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 elephants were captured or killed in the subcontinent over this period, with most of the offtake being from northeastern India.

The Sri Lankan picture has been recently updated by Jayantha Jayewar-dene. This indicates that the elimination of elephants, through sport hunting and control measures, during the nineteenth century caused even greater depletion than did the capture of elephants. One observer records the wanton killing of 100 elephants in just three days by four Europeans during the year 1837. The destruction of about 3,500 elephants in the Northern Province dur ing 1845-1848 and of 2,000 elephants during 1851-1855 is often cited in the literature. British Government Records actually show that 5,194 elephants were destroyed during 1845-1859. These records also indicate that 3,253 elephants were exported during 1853-1894. On the basis of such records, Jayewardene estimates that 17,000 elephants may have been exported, destroyed, or died in captivity during the nineteenth century. A government ordinance of 1891 seems to have lessened the "wanton destruction" of elephants in later periods.

Myanmar has systematically captured elephants in significant numbers for use in logging operations. Records available for the twentieth century suggest that the captures declined from an average annual offtake of 417 elephants during 1910-1930 to only 100 animals during 1970-1990, for a total of over 17,000 elephants over this period. In 1994, Myanmar imposed a moratorium on captures in view of its greatly reduced wild stocks. The large numbers of captive elephants in Thailand, second only to Myanmar at present, also suggest regular captures from the wild. At the turn of the twentieth century, an estimated 100,000 captive elephants is plausible and 50,000 certainly believable for the country. Although systematic captures halted in the early 1970s, a certain number are still taken illegally.

One Asian country that continues to capture elephants in significant numbers is Indonesia, which does not otherwise have a recent tradition of keeping elephants in captivity. Since 1986, several hundred elephants have been captured on the island of Sumatra, ostensibly to reduce crop depredation. The precise number of elephants captured here is not clear, but a few years ago, at least 520 elephants were reportedly held in several camps across the island. Presumably, more elephants were actually captured, but many died during the operations. These elephants have suffered high postcapture mortality because of a combination of lack of appropriate traditional expertise in training and health care, as well as inadequate resources. By the end of 2000, only 326 elephants seemed to remain in the camps, some having moved to other locations and others having died.

While sporadic poaching of elephants for tusks or other products such as meat undoubtedly existed for a long time in India, the systematic targeting of bulls for ivory began only in the 1970s (fig. 8.13). The written accounts, backed by photographic records of naturalists like M. Krishnan, who observed elephants in several reserves across the country during the 1950s and 1960s, certainly testify to the presence of large numbers of adult tusked bulls in areas where few remained by the 1980s. Systematic poaching for ivory seems to have begun in the southern Indian reserve of Periyar and its vicinity in Kerala State by the mid-1970s, and it wiped out most of the tusked adult male elephants within a decade. Mohana Chandran, a ranger working in this reserve, reported that, during 1987-1989, the adult male-to-female ratio was 1 : 122, while the subadult ratio was about 1 : 6, suggesting that poaching had taken a severe toll of tusked males across virtually all age classes. Observations in this reserve during the mid-1990s by my research team confirmed a very similar elephant population structure. Through computer simulations, I estimated that poachers had killed 336-388 elephants over a 20-year period in this reserve (chapter 7).

By the late 1970s the poaching scourge had spread to other major elephant populations further north in the Anamalais, the Nilgiris, the Biligiriran-gans, and the Eastern Ghats in the southern Indian states of Tamilnadu and Karnataka. During the 1980s, several independent groups of poachers operated over this southern range, holding some of the largest elephant populations in Asia. The high proportion (>90%) of tusked males in this region also meant that southern India had the largest number of tuskers of any region in the continent. In the Biligirirangans and the Nilgiris, the ratio of adult males to females was about 1 : 5 during 1981-1982, but it widened to nearly 1 : 9 by 1987. In the Nilgiris, where I subsequently continued to observe elephants, the adult sex ratio skewed further to about 1 : 25 by the year 2000.

For the period 1977-1986, I estimated that 100-150 male elephants were killed each year by people. While some of these deaths were possibly of crop raiders and others were failed attempts at poaching, the poachers got away with at least 100 pairs of tusks, yielding 1.8 tonnes of ivory annually. This was a conservative estimate of poaching in southern India. The destination for much of this ivory was the state of Kerala, which was home to a thriving carving industry, although some of this also went to dealers in Mysore and Bangalore cities or smuggled out to the Middle East. From mid-1987 onward, there was a noticeable reduction in poaching in the south.

An upswing in the poaching graph began again in 1991; this time, the phenomenon spread over a wider area in the country, including central and northeast India and finally the northern population. The database that Vivek Menon, Ashok Kumar, and I have been maintaining shows that, between 1994 and 2000, about 80-100 elephants have been recorded as killed by poachers each year in the country. Considering the deficiencies in detecting or recording cases of poaching, this number could easily be over 200 elephants annually. The following broad patterns could be seen in poaching of elephants during the last quarter of a century.

Ivory poaching on a serious scale began in the mid-1970s in the Periyar region of Kerala and soon spread to other elephant populations in southern India. At this time, poaching in other regions of the country seemed to be sporadic. From 1988 onward, there was a relative lull in poaching in the south for a few years, but when it resurfaced in the early 1990s, it became a countrywide phenomenon, peaking in 1997 and affecting central India, the northeast, and finally the northern population of Rajaji-Corbett by the end of the decade. This suggests that the sourcing of illegal Indian ivory has shifted with time, as could be expected from populations depleted of tusked males to others still maintaining sizable numbers of tuskers. Within a population or region, the poaching of tusked males has also shifted from older males to younger males. Several recent poaching incidents in southern India have been of males as young as 3-5 years old (fig. 8.16). This has resulted in skewed ratios not only in the adult segment, but also in the subadult and juvenile segments of the

Figure 8.16

A 4-year-old juvenile Asian male elephant poached for its ivory in Mudumalai in southern India. With the reduction in the numbers and proportions of larger bulls in the population, the poachers in this region have shifted to younger elephants that yield less than 1 kg per pair of tusks.

Figure 8.16

A 4-year-old juvenile Asian male elephant poached for its ivory in Mudumalai in southern India. With the reduction in the numbers and proportions of larger bulls in the population, the poachers in this region have shifted to younger elephants that yield less than 1 kg per pair of tusks.

elephant population. Even in populations or regions for which poaching declined in absolute terms, it may have actually increased in terms of claiming progressively larger proportions of the surviving male segment. Some of the poaching, including that of female elephants, during the 1990s in the northeast was for meat, which apparently was processed and supplied to militant groups. There are also stray reports of elephants being killed for their tail hair (considered a lucky charm) and for parts such as temporal glands for use in medicinal preparations. Today, there is possibly no elephant population in India that has not been affected by poaching.

Unlike India, hard data on poaching of elephants are scarce for other Asian countries. One would expect Sri Lanka to face only a relatively minor problem of ivory poaching as over 95% of its male elephants are tuskless. However, there are many reports of female elephants being killed for their tushes; these reports are corroborated by the availability of carvings from tushes in the local markets. Only sporadic incidents of poaching are reported from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sumatra. Reports of raw ivory being available in Sumatra's Lampung Province suggest that poaching may be more common than believed. It is clear, however, that elephant populations across continental Southeast Asia from Myanmar to Vietnam have declined from kill ing, mostly by traditional hunting tribes, not only for ivory, but also for meat and other products. Poaching has been widespread across Myanmar, especially in the north, in the Rakhine Yoma to the west, and in the southern Tenasserim along the border with Thailand. A newspaper report in 1974 gave figures of 200 elephants killed in the Rakhine Yoma during 1968-1974. Official figures also record 55 elephants killed in the country during 1982-1991.

In neighboring Thailand, at least 91 elephants, representing about 10% of the population, were poached during 1975-1979 in the protected areas. Available figures also suggest 110 deaths of male elephants from poaching during 1987-1997. A report of 42 elephants killed in Laos during 1992 is the only information on poaching for the country. Traditional hunters are active in Cambodia, especially in the Cardamom Mountains to the southwest, which possibly have the largest remaining elephant population there. Hunting of elephants has been widespread in Vietnam during the postwar period, concurrent with the clearing of forests on a large scale for agriculture. Its wild elephant population, numbering less than 100 individuals today in scattered groups, suggests a decline of at least 90% since 1980. Unlike the poaching in India, which has been mostly selective in targeting male elephants, the poaching in Southeast Asia has been relatively nonselective, resulting in declining populations.

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