By Raquel Gilliland, SOC Education/Outreach Intern
We have an extra special edition of Creature Feature to introduce you to our latest conservation project; terrestrial (land) animals!
In keeping with our new expanded mission, terrestrial conservation in addition to marine conservation, the Sea of Change Foundation (SOC) sought an elephant conservation project for funding. After some research, we identified the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society’s Project Orange Elephant as a worthy conservation project that can lead to positive change.
Expansion of rural subsistence agriculture along with resulting habitat loss are the biggest contributors to Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC), which is one of the largest environmental and socio-economic crisises facing communities in rural Sri Lanka. The conservation challenge is a result of agricultural land use practices that are incompatible with elephants’ habitat needs. Thereefore, the solution to mitigate HEC must be based on developing innovative land use strategies.
Project Orange Elephant (POE) is a crop diversification project that encourages farmers to cultivate oranges. Why? Feeding trials confirm that. elephants do not eat oranges. Because elephants don’t like oranges, orange crops are not susceptible to elephant raids thereby providing farmers with a sustainable supplementary income from the oranges. The result is that Sri Lankan farmers less hostile towards elephants thereby creating an environment of coexistence between the community and the elephants.
The POE strategy is to use the existing skill sets and resources of rural farmers who suffer frequent crop and property damage from elephants to create an alternative sustainable income source –orange crops. A further goal of the POE project is to create a new market-driven sustainable livelihood sthat will reduce human-elephant conflicts and provide farmers with a socio-economically stable primary income that is “elephant friendly”. The Sea of Change Foundation supports the POE project because it supports human-elephant coexistence, helps alleviate rural poverty, and supports the long term conservation of the endangered Sri Lankan elephants and their habitats.
Why is protecting the Asian Elephant important? Historically, the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) was found throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and they are the largest living land animal in Asia. On average, males are about 2.75 m (9.0 ft) tall and weighs about four tons, while females are smaller at about 2.4 m (7.9 ft) tall and weight about 2.7 tons. Elephants are crepuscular, meaning they are most active during dusk and dawn, and they are herbivorous — eat ing only plants. They need 80-200 liters of water a day and are never far for long from a fresh water source. Adult females travel in groups with their calves, while adult males travel alone or in bachelor groups. The species is slow to reproduce. The gestation period is 8-12 months and calves are weaned for up to three years, during which the mother will not breed often resulting in a four to the five-year birth interval. Both sexes reach adulthood and sexual reproduction around 17 years old and can live on average 60 years in the wild.
Compared to the African elephant, Asian elephants are smaller and have a flat or concave back as opposed to the arched back of their African relatives. They have a weaker social construct than African elephants but still exhibit a wide variety of sophisticated behaviors such as; compassion, grief, self-awareness, mimicry, play, memory, and the ability to use tools. They can also predict extreme weather events such as tsunamis by retreating to higher ground.
Despite their large size, intelligence and once expansive range, Asian elephants are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss and poaching for their ivory tusks. The ivory trade has become a catastrophic threat to all elephants with rampant poaching throughout much of Asia and Africa. In 1975, the international trade in Asian elephant ivory was banned when the Asian elephant was placed on Appendix One of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). By the late 1980s, it was believed that only around 50,000 remained in the wild. Sadly, today, in certain countries such as Thailand, the illegal ivory trade still flourishes and there has been a recent surge in killing elephants for their skins to sell on the black market.
Here at the Sea of Change Foundation, we are committed to be helping to mitigate some of the threats to elephant populations with our partners at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society and their Project Orange Elephant. Stay tuned for more updates on our Facebook, Instagram, and website.