Asian elephants were historically found throughout the continent, from West Asia along the Iranian coast into the Indian subcontinent, eastward into Southeast Asia and China at least as far as the Yangtze River. This giant mammal, formerly occurring over three and a half million square miles, is now extinct in West Asia, Java, and most of China, and survives in isolated pockets scattered across grasslands and tropical forests in thirteen Asian countries.
Asian elephants are herbivores that subsist on a diet of leaves, stems, fruit, grasses, and the bark of many trees and other plants. Much of the species’ habitat has been converted into farmland, so elephants frequently feed on domestic crops, creating serious conflict with humans. The survival of this endangered species depends on figuring out ways to cut down on these sometimes-deadly clashes and preserve adequate habitat for elephants.

Illegal killing (poaching), loss of habitat, and other forms of conflict with humans are all major threats to Asia’s elephants and these threats are increasing as the continent’s human population continues to grow. Human-elephant conflict is one of the biggest challenges: As their habitats are transformed into agricultural areas, including oil palm plantations, Asian elephants increasingly feed on crops, which can lead to violent conflicts with humans. When elephants eat or trample crops, or injure or kill people, farmers are tempted to retaliate either by killing the elephants themselves or by helping poachers. Throughout Asia, hunters continue to target elephants, capitalizing on continued demand for their ivory tusks. The population of Asian elephants has declined significantly in recent decades, and the species is considered endangered, which means there is a very high risk of this animal’s extinction in the wild.

WCS supports and promotes elephant conservation throughout Asia. We collaborate with the staff of Asian government agencies responsible for elephant conservation, helping to directly implement elephant surveys, human–elephant conflict reduction projects, and law enforcement initiatives. WCS is also a major partner of the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program in Asia.

WCS believes that a key tool for effecting conservation is to monitor the outcomes of interventions by studying trends in elephant population size. To this end, our scientists are on the ground, conducting surveys based on dung counts and camera traps, and pioneering new molecular biology techniques to estimate the size and status of elephant populations. The results of our work will improve the management of remaining elephant populations and their habitat, and help identify areas in which elephants are vulnerable to hunting, habitat degradation, and conflict with humans so that appropriate interventions can be taken.

WCS is also working with local communities throughout Southeast Asia to reduce human-elephant conflict. We are pioneering innovative, evidence-based approaches to crop protection. Recent success include the promotion of low-tech, community-based guarding methods in Sumatra that have successfully repelled more than 90 percent of attempted elephant raids in some areas.