By Dr. Becker
Sumatran elephants are the smallest of the Asian elephants, standing just five to nine feet at the shoulder. With a population of just 2,400 to 2,800 remaining, this critically endangered species is quickly succumbing to poachers and habitat loss.
The switch from “endangered” to the even worse “critically endangered” happened in 2012, after half of the elephants’ population was destroyed in one generation. Sumatran elephants are not known for their tusks, which are rarely very long on males and may be so short they appear hidden on females.
However, even a short tusk draws the attention of poachers looking to sell the ivory illegally. As a result, male Sumatran elephants are being increasingly targeted, with each death skewing the sex ratio further among the remaining animals, and interfering with breeding rates.
70 Percent of Sumatran Elephants’ Habitat Was Destroyed in One Generation
Aside from poachers, Sumatran elephants’ greatest threat comes from habitat loss. Native to lowland forest areas, particularly those close to rivers, the elephants were once widespread on Sumatra. Over the last 2.5 decades, however, more than two-thirds of the area’s forest has been cleared, largely for use in the pulp and paper industries and due to oil palm plantations.
In just one generation alone, 70 percent of Sumatran elephants’ habitat was destroyed. As their natural habitat shrinks, the elephants are forced to move closer to humans. This often results in human-elephant conflicts as the animals raid crops, trample homes, and sometimes even hurt or kill local residents.
Residents, in turn, may seek revenge by poisoning or shooting the elephants. The infographic below, created by Discovery News, shows the endangerment cycle facing Sumatran elephants.1 Asian species expert Dr. Barney Long noted:2
“Unless deforestation on the island of Sumatra is halted, we could possibly see the Sumatran elephant be restricted to just a few remote populations within our lifetimes.”
Source: Discovery News February 16, 2015
Sumatran Elephants Help Forests to Thrive
Every species plays an important role in its surrounding ecosystem, and Sumatran elephants are no different. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF):3
“Sumatran elephants feed on a variety of plants and deposit seeds wherever they go, contributing to a healthy forest ecosystem. They also share their lush forest habitat with several other endangered species, such as the Sumatran rhino, tiger, and orangutan, and countless other species that all benefit from an elephant population that thrives in a healthy habitat.”
Sadly, the majority (85 percent) of the elephants’ remaining habitat is not protected and at risk of being converted for agricultural purposes. WWF is working to secure healthy forests for the animals, with one protected area established in 2004. They noted:4
“A major breakthrough was achieved in Sumatra with the 2004 declaration of Tesso Nilo National Park, a protected area, which represents a significant step towards the protection of the elephant's habitat.
The Tesso Nilo forest is one of the last forest blocks large enough to support a viable population of critically endangered Sumatran elephants and is also home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.”
Another program started by WWF in 2004 is the “Elephant Flying Squad.” This group of specially trained rangers and elephants drive wild elephants back into the forests if they veer too close to villages. According to WWF:5
“The project proved so effective in reducing losses suffered by local communities and companies that there are now four flying squads in the Riau Province… The squads help bring short-term relief to the intense conflict between people and elephants and to create support for elephant conservation among struggling communities.”
Africa’s Elephant Population Is Also on the Decline
Unfortunately, the threats decimating Sumatra’s elephant population are not unique to the area. Africa is seeing similar declines. In 1900, there were an estimated 10 million elephants in Africa. By 1980, that number had dropped to just over a million.
Today, there are only around a half million African elephants left. And according to animal conservation groups, Africa could lose another 20 percent of its elephant population over the next decade if current poaching levels are maintained.
The increase in elephant poaching in Africa is fueled by a growing demand for ivory in Asia. African elephants are killed for their tusks, and the ivory is shipped primarily to Thailand and China. Trading in ivory has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but the illegal ivory trade is still estimated at $10 billion a year.
Experts believe a combination of poverty and weak law enforcement in African countries is driving the spike in elephant poaching. According to the secretary general of CITES:
“Current elephant poaching in Africa remains far too high, and could soon lead to local extinctions if the present killing rates continue.”
How to Help Sumatran Elephants
If you’d like to get involved, you can take a stand against illegal ivory trade in the US by urging the US Fish and Wildlife Service to take a firm stance against it. As noted by WWF:
“America's role in the consumption and sale of ivory makes us complicit in this crisis and weakens our moral authority to lead internationally. The US is the world's second-largest market for wildlife products, and significant amounts of illegal elephant ivory have been found entering the American market. We must strengthen our laws to prevent this from happening and to encourage other countries to act with similar urgency.”
In addition, do not buy ivory products. If there is no market for ivory, illegal or otherwise, the poaching will cease to occur. Finally, look for certified sustainable palm oil and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified forest products (wood, paper, etc.).
These products help protect Asian elephant habitat by limiting illegal logging and unsustainable forest conversions. Only by protecting their natural habitat and stopping the threat of poaching will Sumatran elephants be able to once again thrive.