The threat to the Asian elephant^s survival has been grossly underestimated. Illegal ivory poaching and the traditional problems of habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss threaten the survival of 25,000 - 27,000 Asian elephants in India, according to the United States Embassy in New Delhi.
Indian wildlife experts claim that approximately 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the Asian range countries. Male elephants are targeted by poachers for their valuable ivory tusks, resulting in a declining population and an unbalanced male/female ratio. Indian law protects elephants, but the law is poorly enforced, and economic incentives to poachers almost guarantee a continued population decrease, especially if international limits on the world trade of ivory are eased.
Enforcement difficult - Although Indian law accords the Asian elephant the highest levels of species protection under both national law and international treaty, there has been an upsurge in elephant poaching for ivory and meat. Occasional conflicts with regional regulations or local administrative rules and lackluster judicial enforcement have left the elephant imperiled. The slow judicial process, along with careless filing of cases or slipshod presentation of evidence by prosecutors, has led to a poor record of convictions. Scores of court cases relating to seizures of ivory are pending in Indian courts, but not a single case in the last decade has resulted in a conviction.
Habitat threatened - Commercial demand for forest products, such as coffee, tea, rubber, and valuable hardwoods, is reducing the Asian elephants^ forest habitat. Crop cultivation, iron ore mining, and flooding by hydroelectric projects have also diminished large tracts of land required by elephants for adequate food supplies. Poaching of tuskers (male elephants) over the past twenty years has taken a heavy toll. In 1997 alone more than 100 tuskers were officially recorded as killed in India by poachers, probably a fraction of the total number actually lost. Elephant poachers typically traffic in other illegal flora and fauna, including tigers, rhinos, leopards, bears, reptiles, butterflies, and various plants. Demand for ivory comes primarily from overseas buyers- mostly from Japan and China-willing to pay big money.
Outlook - The government of India regularly voices opposition to downlisting of the Asian elephant on endangered species lists, and pushes for continuation of the international ban on ivory trade via participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Indian wildlife experts believe their government also needs to strengthen its own legal enforcement if its elephant population is to survive. But such efforts will fail unless the demand for ivory by consumer nations subsides.