The continued survival of elephants, or of hundreds of thousands of species unknown to science for that matter, is inextricably linked to a host of environmental, biological, ecological, social, economic, and political factors. As during the late Pleistocene, global climate change, this time human induced, is an environmental factor that could potentially make major impacts on landscapes and species. We can barely speculate upon how elephants and their habitats would respond to climate change in the coming decades.
The biological factors impinging on elephant survival include disease epidemics that could wipe out entire populations, especially smaller ones. The ecological considerations include the demographic viability of small populations in the face of stochasticity, habitat viability in relation to its loss and fragmentation, and changing habitat quality. The resolution of elephant-human conflict is an economic and a social issue with ethical dimensions in developing countries. At the same time, the changing economic contours of nations have witnessed fluxes in the demand for luxury consumption of ivory, with serious consequences for elephant populations. Finally, political structures and conflicts, internecine or international, can influence the course of conservation. Obviously, these factors do not operate independent of each other, but are intertwined.
Futurology is always risky business. However, I think it is fairly safe to say that the twenty-first century will be a defining moment in the earth's history of life. We stand armed with the most sophisticated technologies that can strike at and manipulate the very basis of life—the genetic code. These technologies equip us to play God and drive the future course of the evolution of life. Before that becomes a reality, we are also poised to obliterate a significant proportion of the estimated 10 million or more species of living organisms at a rate that would make the mass extinction of dinosaurs and other creatures at the end of the Cretaceous a minor blip in the geological record.
How would elephants fare under these circumstances? If one were to ask me whether elephant populations in Asia and in Africa could be conserved over their entire present ranges, my answer would be an emphatic "No." The inexorable march of humans across the earth's natural landscapes and current levels of consumption of its resources show no signs of abating as yet. Even if human populations stabilize by the middle of this century, as some demographic projections show, and even if our demands on natural resources plateau by then, large chunks of present-day natural landscapes would have disappeared and along with them many creatures, including several elephant populations. True, the unexpected could always happen. Disease epidemics could curtail human populations on regional scales. Increased urbanization could reduce direct pressures on natural lands. Changes in consumption patterns or alternative energy sources and improved energy efficiency could increase the "carrying capacity" of the planet for humans with minimal impact on natural landscapes. I do not foresee how any of these can halt the loss of natural habitat over the next several decades.
On the other hand, if one were to ask me whether elephants could be saved, my cautiously optimistic answer would be, "Yes." Asian and African elephants have far better survival prospects compared to, say, the tiger, many rhino species now tottering on the brink, or thousands of unnamed insect and plant species destined to perish in the tropics. Elephants are pretty adaptable creatures spread over diverse landscapes in tropical and subtropical Asia and Africa. We can expect them to be resilient overall as a species to some of the knocks they would undoubtedly receive in the coming decades. At this point, science and pragmatism will have to join hands to plan for the conservation of elephants with a long-term perspective. Fortunately, the total population size of African elephants runs into several hundred thousands and of Asian elephants into several tens of thousands, although in fragmented landscapes. I am not trying to project these, especially regarding the Asian elephant, as absolutely safe numbers, but merely as adequate foundations for building conservation edifices. We cannot save every single elephant population surviving today, but we can save several of these populations. Indeed, trying to cling to every single elephant, when conservation resources are limited, may be counterproductive and jeopardize the prospects of the more viable populations.
Charismatic animals such as elephants can act as powerful flagships for achieving broader goals, such as conservation of biological diversity. Some have argued, based on observations in localized areas of semiarid Africa, that elephants are actually inimical to biodiversity. For instance, declines in en demic succulent plants and birds have been seen in vegetation impacted heavily by elephants. Such a narrow focus overlooks the expansive stride of elephants across the two continents, from near deserts through savanna-woodland, and to seasonal forests and rain forests and from lowland forests to mountain habitats approaching the snow line. Many of these are among the most biologically diverse areas on earth. By conserving elephants across these landscapes, the persistence of very significant proportions of the earth's biodiversity would also be ensured. With the Asian elephant, there is the added dimension of the cultural traditions it represents. The landscape approach, termed variously as managed elephant reserves or similarly, is the approach advocated by the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group in its action plan and incorporated into national conservation plans for the species, such as India's Project Elephant. This action plan also identified several such landscapes across Asia for conservation efforts (appendix 1). The conservation issues and challenges in these landscape units are very different. Many of these elephant populations and their habitats would need intensive management. When resources are limited, it is also necessary to prioritize landscapes or populations for conservation action. I had identified 27 such priority landscapes across Asia based on criteria such as elephant population size, effective population size (see section 9.2.1), habitat area, habitat type, overall biodiversity, regional representation, extent of poaching, levels of elephant-human conflict, local political situation, and so on. To this we must now add measures of genetic variation in elephant populations from the ongoing studies (chapter 1). Priorities may also have to be decided upon on more regional scales. Arun Venkataraman and I have been developing algorithms for prioritizing elephant landscapes and their administrative units.
African elephant landscapes in the eastern, central, and even southern parts of the continent are much more contiguous, although the situation in western Africa is akin to that of fragmented habitats in Asia.
In this concluding chapter, I trace the broad contours of the conservation framework for elephants. Conservation solutions should obviously be region specific in most cases, although certain aspects, such as the trade in ivory, have international ramifications. Science and idealism have to be infused with a strong dose of pragmatism to achieve tangible results that are long lasting. This requires recognition of the complex dimensions to conserving species such as elephants. Socioeconomic forces not within the controlling power of any political system drive land-use changes around elephant landscapes. Our understanding of the dynamics of the international ivory trade and its links to poaching is inadequate. The elephant's ingenuity is more than a match for our technological gadgetry when it has made up its mind to forage in that attractive crop field.
The new science of conservation biology, according to Graeme Caughley, has seemingly progressed along two major lines: the small-population paradigm backed by strong theoretical underpinnings but contributing little to conservation practice and the declining-population paradigm, which is weak in theory but perhaps has more relevance to real-life conservation problems. Obviously, a balanced mix of the two approaches is needed to tackle the conservation issues relating to elephants effectively. The principles listed in the remainder of this chapter are meant to be guidelines for developing strategies for conserving individual elephant populations or the species at regional scales.
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