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Wildlife corridors are the Asian elephant's last chance for survival

Mark Shand

22nd June, 2010

Why wildlife corridors are the new reserves - and why colourful elephants are cropping up on London streets

The Asian elephant is at an all time-low. I predict extinction if we do not do something to secure its shrinking habitat. Fewer than one in ten Asian elephants remain from a century before, but more worryingly, these have been squeezed into pockets of forest that is altogether twenty times smaller than it used to be. They are simply running out of space and time. Can we really allow this magnificent beast to vanish on our watch?

Surrounded by a burgeoning human population, Asian elephants have to contend with the spread of settlements and farming, and the demands of rapidly developing nations: plantations, mines, railways, and irrigation canals have carved up former wilderness.

Saving elephants against this backdrop is an uphill struggle, particularly in impoverished regions where reconciling their needs with those of local people is difficult. Lasting solutions can only be found by working at all levels of society, with small subsistence communities, as well as governments and major corporations.

Wildlife reserves that compete with other priorities and exclude people are no longer the solution: now the highest priority is securing wildlife corridors - the traditional migration routes of elephants - to maintain the vital connections between these reserves and other forest patches.

Elephants in London

Horrified by witnessing the plight of the elephants in India, in 2002 I established Elephant Family, the only UK charity dedicated solely and exclusively to saving the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild. The organisation has grown steadily, and this year we really wanted to shine a spotlight on Asian elephants, whose plight has been overshadowed by the threat of the illegal ivory trade to the far more numerous African elephant.

By hosting Elephant Parade London we have brought the otherwise humdrum streets of London to life by installing more than 250 brightly painted elephant sculptures over a two-month period. This has launched our campaign to save the Asian elephant, with the public signing a petition to encourage governments to provide more initiative and investment (www.elephantfamily.org/petition).

The event is also our most ambitious fundraiser to date, and from the sale of the sculptures we are hoping to raise more than £1 million for the most vital of conservation projects.

Creating and protecting corridors

At least half of the world's remaining Asian elephants live in India, and this year we are investing heavily in the Wildlife Trust of India. They have catalogued all the corridors that elephant herds have followed for centuries as a first step towards securing them through land purchase and the resettlement of villagers.

The latter are provided strong incentives to resettle, including the provision of good quality housing and agricultural land. Once fully secured the corridors are then awarded protected status from the state wildlife department.

Since 2007 Elephant Family has been the main investor in the Tirunelli-Kudrakote corridor, a 2,200 acre strip of land between two wildlife sanctuaries of the Nilgiri Landscape in southern India, home to 6,500 elephants, the largest surviving population of Asian elephants in the world.

The process is working, and yet the Wildlife Trust of India has identified 88 corridors throughout the country that need securing, and we intend to invest in as many of these as we can. The financial investment required is far greater than Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India could manage alone, but it is hoped further investment can be secured by demonstrating success.

Urgent crisis

Preserving these traditional corridors is the most urgent priority, as the struggle intensifies when they are lost. Elephants seek food elsewhere if their route is blocked, and raiding crops and grain stores brings them into conflict with people, often resulting in deaths on both sides. In the central Indian state of Orissa, mining has scarred the landscape and it is already too late to secure most of the traditional elephant corridors.

With nowhere to hide, they are considered an enemy by the local communities, who harass and stress them in retribution for damaged crops. With the Wildlife Protection Society of India, we are therefore providing new routes, or transit paths, through which elephants can pass safely without coming into conflict, by restoring habitat; planting trees, and creating waterholes and feeding sites.

This crisis facing Asian elephants is of course not confined to India. Elephant Family is about to embark on a corridor project in Thailand with the Elephant Conservation Network, while in Indonesia and Malaysia we are already working with local partners on a variety of measures to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, working with local communities to regard elephants as an asset not a threat, and to find solutions that enable peaceful co-existence.

There are 13 Asian countries that still have elephants and Elephant Family is looking to invest in further projects that will be the most critical for saving elephants while there is still time. We have set ourselves a £50m target for the next ten years to reconnect Asia's forests. Elephant Parades will crop up in cities all over the world to help us get there. It's a genuis concept.

Mark Shand is the founder of the Elephant Family www.elephantfamily.org 

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