Asian Elephant

 / ©: WWF / Christy Williams
Asian elephant, Chitwan National Park, Nepal .
© WWF / Christy Williams

The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is the largest of all mammals in Nepal. Its shoulder height varies from 250 to 300cm, and a male elephant can weigh up to 5,000 kg. Elephants have an excellent memory and a long lifespan - similar to that of humans. Elephants are very sociable. They live in groups of related animals, led by a mature female. Members of the same group communicate with each other using sound, scent and touch.

Elephants are capable of producing infrasonic sounds (low-pitched sounds that fall below the hearing range of humans) that are especially useful for communicating over long distances, since the lower-pitched the sound is, the further the sound waves can travel. The trunk, which is an elongated nose with nostrils situated at the very end, is a delicate tool. It can be used for a wide array of tasks, from moving heavy tree trunks to picking up objects as small as a peanut. The Asian elephant has a single "finger" on the upper lip of the trunk.

In Nepal

Elephants are an integral part of Nepalese culture and Nepal has a long history of domestication of wild elephants for various purposes. Hindu religious books are replete with stories about elephants.

The use of domesticated Asian elephants ( Elephas maximus ) in Nepal can be traced from as far back as the times of King Man Dev of Lichhavi Dynasty. According to historian Baburam Acharya the kings o f Makwanpur captured wild elephants from the Bhabar forests and sold them to the Mughal rulers of India . Jung Bahadur Rana, the first Rana Prime Minister, is said to have captured three wild elephants in 1851 AD using the daunting technique of kheda . During the Rana regime, domesticated elephants were considered indispensable beasts of burden and the Rana rulers commissioned Hattisars (Camp for domesticated elephants and elephant handlers) for big game hunting. There were 32 permanent as well as temporary Hattisars during that time in Nepal.

Elephants are described as all terrain and all weather vehicles. They are also the symbol of strength and status. In the earlier days trained elephants were kept as a means of transport or for big game hunting. Rulers of Asian countries capitalized on the versatility of trained elephants and used them in war, timber trade, transportation of goods, and for religious ceremonies.

In constant conflict with humans

Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) or negative interaction between people and wildlife has recently become one of the fundamental aspects of wildlife management. Of all the wild animals, the destruction brought about by elephants is one of the most devastating.

The Asian elephant is endangered, mainly because of habitat loss: most suitable habitats have been turned into fields and human settlements. There are approximately 30,000 Asian elephants in the wild - less than one tenth the number of African elephants.

In addition, there are about 16,000 captive elephants throughout southern Asia which are mostly used as working animals. In the protected areas of Terai, tame elephants also play a key role in work to patrol the landscape in search of poachers.

WWF has directed efforts to help solve conflicts between local communities and wild elephants.


Status and Distribution of Asian Elephants

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 has accorded Asian elephant a protected status. It has been categorized as an endangered species by IUCN. CITES has also listed the Asian elephant in Appendix I and AREAS of WWF International aims to conserve elephants in biological hotspots and reduce man-elephant conflict.

Asian Elephants occurs in the Indian sub continent ( India , Nepal , Bhutan and Bangladesh ), continental southeast Asia ( China , Burma , Thailand , Kampuchea , Laos , Vietnam and Malaysia ) and Island Asia [ Andaman Island ( India ), Sri Lanka , Sumatra ( Indonesia ) and Borneo (Sukumar 1989)]. Besides, the tiger and the rhinoceros it is one of the flagship species of Terai Arc Landscape Nepal.

Asian Elephants in Nepal occur mainly in four main populations in the Terai belt. The eastern population (10-15) that migrate from West Bengal, India to the eastern districts during July to October; central population (25) mostly confined to PWR; western population, (45-50) residing in RBNP and far western population (2-18) in the Churia foothills. The far-western population moves occasionally to India via the Mahakali River and sometimes uses RSWR as a dispersal area.


Hattisars in Nepal 

Traditionally, domesticated elephants were not raised for breeding in Nepal because elephant with a calf needs to be laid off from work for at least three to four years. It is not only a daunting task to train the calves but also fairly expensive. The availability of young elephants from the wild for recruiting until a few decades ago did not require breeding elephants in captivity. The establishment of elephant-breeding center provides an opportunity to retain traditional wisdom of training elephants and their handlers. With this objective in mind Government of Nepal established an Elephant Breeding Center at Khorsor near Chitwan National Park in 1986.

There are six major government-owned Hattisars in the country spread across the protected areas of lowland Terai. All hattisars were established recently except for the Chitwan Hattisar , which was shifted from nearby Sonbarsa in 1966. Upkeep of elephants is by no means an easy task. Proper care involves providing nutritious food and hygienic conditions, both of which incur sizable expenses. The domesticated elephants of the government Hattisars are used for anti-poaching surveillance, captive-breeding program, wildlife monitoring, capturing problem animals, and evacuating trapped animals. They are also used for ecotourism, wildlife research, conservation education and special ceremonies.