The decline of the Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), while not regarded as alarmingly as that of their cousins, the African elephants (Lodonta africana), has continued since the beginning of the century. They do not face the same imminent danger as the Bengal tiger and the one-horned rhino, but nevertheless are endangered. In India, there is now a call for Operation Elephant to save the species.
The worldwide population of Elephas maxinuts was estimated in 1978 at 40,000, ranging across the continent from India through South-east Asia, China and Indonesia. But that number was speculative. No firm figures have been available for Burma and Laos for years. In most countries, the number of domesticated elephants has been rising as a percentage of the overall population. In Nepal and India, especially, demographic pressures have squeezed the wild elephants into ever smaller areas which cannot sustain them, and continued ivory poaching and their capture for logging and tourism has further diminished their numbers.
Meanwhile, a methodology has not been developed to breed elephants in domesticity. “The principles have been agreed upon, but nobody thus far has the knowhow,” says Hemanta Mishra, Secretary of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC). “The breeding biology of the male and female are not yet fully understood.”
A method employed in India has been to set domesticated females loose in areas roamed by wild bulls, to allow mating under natural conditions. There are still considerable numbers of wild elephants in pockets of south, central, north and north-east India, an estimated 16,000 to 21,000, according to D.K. Lahiri Choudhury, an authority, but as their herds diminish, so will the results of that breeding method.
In Nepal, prospects are even less promising. Traditionally, Nepalis have relied upon the north-eastern Indian states for their supply of elephants. In recent years, however, their import has become extremely difficult due to political turmoil in Assam and Nagaland, two prominent suppliers, the Indian Government’s ban on trapping elephants in the wild, and other factors. Because the number of wild elephants probably does not exceed 50 in Nepal, the Indian breeding technique is not feasible on any significant scale.
Several years ago, Kathmandu’s Department of National Wildlife Parks and Wildlife Conservation traded four one-horned rhinos to India in exchange for 16 elephants, to be used in a breeding project at Tikoli forest in Chitwan. Some proved to be too old for mating and the others simply refused to perform. Some of the unproductive Indian bulls have since been replaced by new ones bought in from Thailand and Burma, and efforts are continuing in Tikoli to mate them with the project’s stable of females.
GOOD OLD GANESH
With the lone exception of a baby elephant born at the Tiger Tops jungle lodge in Chitwan, the only domestic bull in Nepal which has proved up to the task of mating has been the famous “Ganesh” in Kosi Anchal of East Nepal. A semi-wild bull, Ganesh has thus far serviced two domestic females brought into Kosi from the Tikoli project, who were set free in the area roamed by the bull to mate under natural conditions.
Ganesh’s willingness to cooperate provides only a limited option for Nepali wildlife experts. For if only his stock of offspring were to be produced in Nepal, it is bound to lead to genetic degradation due to inter-breeding among his descendants. Still another proposal by KMTNC is to recreate a natural habitat for breeding purposes by building a huge reinforced corral.
Even if a technology can be developed for domestic elephant breeding, the enterprise may prove uneconomical. Calves are only born singly, the gestation period is 19 to 21 months, and the interval between potential birthings is four years. A mother can, therefore, produce only one offspring every six years even under optimal conditions, and females usually do not produce their first calf until 14 or 15 years of age. Breeding is also expensive. A calf cannot be separated from its mother for three to five years after birth, during which time both are unproductive while consuming enormous amounts of grass, molasses and rice.
As the clock ticks away, several major considerations hinge on finding a successful breeding method. One is tourism in the Tarai, for which the elephant is a major attraction and vital hub for many activities. But the most urgent one is to preserve tusked males, whose numbers are diminishing rapidly because of ivory poaching. “If it goes on at the current rate,” says Mishra, “there will be a natural selection in which the tusked Asian will soon disappear altogether from Nepal.”
J. Michael Luhan is a writer based in Kathmandu.