World Elephant Day is celebrated worldwide on 12 August to raise awareness about the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants.
The magnificent creature, elephant, are considered keystone species and known as the ecosystem engineer of nature. Elephants contribute significantly to the preservation of forests and ecosystems for other species. They create passageways in densely forested areas that allow other animals to travel through. Their dung consists of seeds from the numerous plants they eat. Those seeds are dispersed throughout their range, which helps the regeneration of various plants. Elephant dung also plays a crucial role in nutrient cycling and provides food to other insects.
Elephants, the largest mammals to walk on earth, hold tremendous cultural values throughout the world as well. They symbolize strength and wisdom in many religions and cultures. It is the living incarnation of one of the most important Hindu gods: Ganesha.
Despite their critical ecological and cultural significance, elephant populations have declined dramatically over the last century in Asia. In the previous 50 years, the Asian elephant population has declined by 50 per cent. According to the IUCN Red List, Asian elephants are considered Endangered globally and Critically Endangered in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the 13 Asian Elephant range countries and is responsible for contributing to the global effort for conserving this majestic animal.
According to the 2016 elephant census conducted by the IUCN, the population of this species stands at 268 and is mainly restricted in the southeast region of the country, primarily the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) and Cox's Bazar district. The number represents more than 40 percent resident Asian elephant population in Bangladesh. The mean resident Asian elephant population was 117 in the two forest divisions of Bangladesh's south-eastern coastal district Cox's Bazar. The study has also pointed out 57 elephant crossing-points on the international borders with India and Myanmar.
Approximately 30% of Bangladesh's elephant population are transboundary, migrating over the borders from and to neighbouring India and Myanmar. In the central-north, elephants in Sherpur, Jamalpur, Netrokona, Kurigram and Moulvibazar districts have transboundary ranges overlapping the Indian states of Meghalaya and Mizoram. In addition, some herds in the CHT move to and from the Mizoram state of India. Some elephants in the Teknaf area of Cox's Bazar district moved freely to and from the Arakan State of Myanmar until the Rohingya refugee crisis started, which blocked the Ghumdhum corridor. The elephants still try to migrate despite the blockage of the corridor, only to find resistance and draw attention from media occasionally on the ordeal both humans and elephants face pushing the elephants back to the forest.
The Rohingya influx has severely impacted the elephant habitat in Cox's Bazar, which once was an important foraging ground for wild elephants. In other elephant habitats, human settlements, agricultural and development infrastructures are expanding, making them fragmented and disrupting elephants' movement. Habitat degradation forces the elephants to come out of the forests searching for food, causing a higher rate of Human-Elephant Conflicts (HEC). It is a vicious cycle as more degradation results in more HEC, leading to vengeance killings of elephants by affected local communities.
Conservation of elephants requires multifaceted initiatives and partnerships at all levels. IUCN has been at the forefront in elephant conservation, bringing policymakers, researchers and practitioners together to build an effective and thriving elephant conservation effort. In addition, IUCN supports improving research and knowledge management capacity, building awareness through communication and education programs, and developing collaboration with the Forest department and local communities.
In 2018, IUCN, in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, developed the action plan for the conservation of Asian elephants. The Bangladesh Elephant Conservation Action Plan (BECAP) 2018-2027 is a Government-owned strategy document that provides a vision, goals, and objectives to steer integrated and focused elephant conservation programmes. Several Bangladeshi elephant experts are members of the IUCN's Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG).
IUCN responded to the Rohingya crisis by starting a new programme on conflict and conservation with UNHCR. The objective is to save both humans and elephants till there is a solution for Rohingya repatriation. As part of this program, several practical interventions have been taken by involving the refugee and host communities, with active facilitation from the UNHCR, the Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD) and the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC). IUCN has trained more than 600 Rohingya to form ele[phant response teams (ERT) who guard the camp edges, spot any elephant trying to break into the camp and gently push the elephants back to the forest. In this way, the elephant response teams could thwart nearly 300 possible human-elephant conflicts. In addition, IUCN trained 200 new volunteers from the local community to form 20 ERTsin collaboration with Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD). IUCN has also introduced various techniques, like bio-fencing and cultivation of crops that elephants don't prefer, thus reducing the risk of HEC.
IUCN is also working to improve the overall degraded forest area through long-term and large-scale reforestation programs. There are also environmental awareness campaigns designed for the refugee and local communities. IUCN has conducted a biomass study to assess the deforestation rate before and after the humanitarian actors have started the distribution of LPG-fueled cooking stoves to refugees in camps.
Recently, IUCN Bangladesh started working with the Forest Department to implement another landmark project titled "Feasibility study of Transboundary Wildlife Corridor in Chattogram, Chattogram Hill Tracts, and Cox's Bazar with Myanmar and India". The study will analyze the current state of the wildlife habitat and connectivity, gather information on the historical presence of elephants and tigers in the proposed areas and develop recommendations on the potential wildlife corridor routes. It will also provide a comprehensive scenario of the potentials of establishing transboundary wildlife corridors for elephants and tigers among Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, and contribute to the conservation actions of these flagship species.
IUCN also supports Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), an international collaboration that measures the levels, trends and causes of elephant mortality, thereby providing an information base to support global decision-making related to the conservation of elephants in Asia and Africa. There are currently 28 sites participating in the MIKE programme in Asia. Chunati is the MIKE site of Bangladesh.
On this year's World Elephant Day, we urge all the stakeholders to continue the efforts to conserve this iconic creature. Let us all help the elephants by restoring the forest landscape and improving elephant habitats. Let us also join hands to protect the elephant corridors, which now has become a crucial link for the survival of the elephants.