The Asian elephant is being poached almost throughout its range and especially so in India, which has between 50-60% of its population (Sukumar 1998). Although  figures for 1998 indicate a decline in poaching in India from 1997, the numbers being poached are still substantial enough to warrant worry. Very scant data over much of the species range complicates the issue.

What is the current status of the Asian elephant in the wild ?

In comparison to the 300,000-600,000 population of the African elephant (Dublin et al. 1997), the Asian elephant is poorly placed with only 35,000-50,000 individuals (Sukumar and Santiapillai 1996, Sukumar 1998) ranging across 13 range countries of Asia. This figure too requires some updating as recent information from across Indo-China and parts of South-East Asia indicates that previous figures may be either over-estimates or that there has been significant mortality over the last few years.

India has the largest surviving population of the species with at least 20,000-25,000 wild elephants still left in the country (Sukumar 1998). Thailand is estimated to have an elephant population of around 2000 (Srikrachang and Jaisomkom 1998), although this could be as low as 1500 (Sukumar 1998). Sri Lanka has between 2500-3000 elephants, Peninsular Malaysia has 1000, Borneo between 500-2000 and  Sumatra between  2800-4800 (Sukumar 1998).

The number of elephants in Indo-China and Myanmar is subject to debate. Myanmar, which has the second largest population after India, has two sets of figures with certain official sources putting the population as between 5000-6000 (Sukumar 1998) while others put the figure as around  4000 (Aung 1997). A classic case of previous over-estimation  is the country of Vietnam which had past estimates of 1500 (Santiapillai and Jackson 1990),  400 (Dawson 1996) and 300 (Le Vu Khoi and Do Tuoc 1992) elephants. Current figures indicate the existence of  not more than 150 elephants in the country (Walston and Trinh Viet Cuong in. prep.). The Annamite mountain range that runs  parallel to the Lao-Vietnam international boundary probably supports the largest elephant population in Indo-China. While the populations in this area are fragmented and cannot in the traditional sense of the term be considered a single unit, they represent more than half of the reported elephant numbers in the region.  It is estimated (Dawson 1996) that Vietnam lost nearly 50% of its forest cover between 1943 and 1983 and the current fragmented elephant population is only viable if taken in conjunction with Laos. The total Lao population would be approximately 1000 animals (Khounboline 1998). There are various estimates for the elephant population in Cambodia. According to Kempf and Jackson (1995), the population of Cambodia is around 2000 wild elephants. According to other sources, Cambodia does not have more than 1000 elephants (H.Weiler pers. comm. to R. Sukumar 1998).

Other than the major populations, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have sub-500 populations as well.  The total Asian elephant population, therefore, is less than 10% of its more glamorous cousin, the African elephant (Sukumar 1998).

What is the current status of elephant poaching in India ?

A comprehensive report on the poaching situation in India till 1996 was presented by the two organisations conducting this project, at the CITES meeting in Harare (Menon et al. 1997). The analysis of poaching in India in the report was based on a database consisting of  2200 mortality entries. In the last one  year 1000 entries have been added. Not all of these are entries pertaining to this period (i.e. 1997 and 1998) as past records continue to filter in. Also, a deliberate attempt was made to fill in data gaps and these turned up new mortality records.  The current analysis is based on  3195 mortality entries of which 943 entries are poaching records.

The poaching figure for 1996, in the last report, was 76.  Fifteen new records were added after June 1997, which made the final tally for the year  91. Poaching increased further in 1997, which recorded 102  cases. This is the highest number recorded by the database thus far. June 1997, in fact, turned out to be the peak of the current poaching wave with 18 elephants poached during that one month (Graph III). Data for 1998 are still coming in, though currently 60 poaching cases have been recorded by the project. It is estimated that this number will go up by at least 20% in the coming few months. The poaching figures compiled by the project are given in Graph I.

It is clearly seen that poaching has remained at very high levels over the past 10 years with a peak during 1996-97, although a decline is noted thus far in 1998. The peak of the poaching recorded thus far is in June 1997.

These figures are based on both official and non-official data that have been collected by the project. In order to cross-check the findings of this project, an attempt was made to analyse the official data that is currently with the Project Elephant Directorate. Although it was understood that this figure would be lower, due to lower reporting rates, the trends that the two figures present are important. The official Project Elephant Directorate poaching figures for the country are  examined in Graph II.  It is to be emphasised that the Directorate depends on State governments for data and does not collect data on its own. Since the Indian government follows the system of a March-April financial year, it is not easy to compare this data with the calendar year data maintained by the project.  Graph II compares the Government of India data and the joint database data which has been converted into a similar format. Graph II shows a peak in 1995-96 (1996 contributing the most mortality) and 1996-97.

Both sets of figures show a slight dip in 1998.

Does this mean that poaching is on the decline in the country ?

Data for 1998 show a general decline in the number of elephants poached in India. Both official and non-official figures point to this. However, the following points must be kept in mind while analysing the figures.

The data sets for 1998, both official and unofficial, are incomplete. During the first half of each year, mortality  records from the previous years come in. The 1996 poaching figure when the previous report (Menon et al. 1997) went to print in June 1997 was 76. It has since been revised to 91, an increase of 19.7 %. The 1997 poaching figure for India on 31 December was 77. The current tally is 102, an increase of 32.4%. On an average, the mortality figure for a year inflates by 20-30% by the time a final tally is arrived at. This is because of late detection of carcasses, inaccessibility of some areas during inclement weather and simple overlooking. Given this, it can be safely presumed that the final total for 1998 will be well over the tally of 60 deaths and would closely approximate the number poached in 1996.

This still shows a drop from the high figure for 1997 which was a peak year for poaching in India. Poaching occurs in waves (Menon 1994) and these take place largely based on opportunistic occurrences. Menon et al. (1997) had documented trade information that pointed to stockpiling in India and neighbouring Nepal before the June 1997 COP at Harare. This was based on trade talk that predicted a resumption of the international trade although the manner in which this was to be achieved was uncertain. Based on the poaching figures thus far available, it is evident that a spurt in poaching in India  started in June 1996. It became significantly higher in Febrary and March 1997 (see Graph I). This was particularly so in parts of southern India where poaching reached very high levels during this period.

Interestingly, the poaching peaked in June even while the 10th COP was in progress at Harare. The effect was felt rather uniformly across the various states having elephant populations, although Orissa and Tamil Nadu were particularly badly hit. Soon after the June 1997 meeting, there was a decline in poaching which fell to a somewhat lower but still significantly high level. This may be attributed to past stockpiles that were not moving fast enough in the market and the general reluctance of the trade in both Japan (VR 1997, VR 1998) and the Ivory Triangle (a term that has been used in this report to connote People’s Republic of China, Macao and Hong Kong jointly) to conduct deals before a confirmation of the COP decisions. During investigations in both areas, traders talked of continuing the decoy negotiations only after February or March 1999 (VR 1998). This general reluctance of the international trader to gamble, especially with high-priced Asian ivory, may have caused stockpiles to remain at relatively high levels in India. This would necessarily cause a decline in poaching, especially with regard to killings that were fuelled by talk of trade resumption.

Another fact to be borne in mind is that the figures of poaching are still high enough to warrant worry and necessitate immediate counter-action. Sukumar (1998 ) estimates that only around 1500 adult bulls with tusks survive in India today. This small number of elephants cannot stand even these poaching levels and would be specially affected in smaller and fragmented populations where each poaching can cause irreversible damage.

What is the current status of elephant poaching in other Asian countries ?

A general paucity of data from most range countries other than India has made the monitoring of poaching in the Asian elephant range as a whole, a very difficult exercise. If sampling is considered a reliable technique then the poaching data of India (which has more than half the Asian population) can be extrapolated to other Asian countries, although this will require much correction for the higher levels of enforcement effort in India. The following are brief country summaries of poaching status, although it is to be emphasised that most of this has to be taken qualitatively and not quantitatively. Until national monitoring mechanisms, preferably national governments acting in conjunction with their NGOs, are put into place, accurate data will be hard to come by. In the absence of good quantitative data, every bit of qualitative data must be taken into account to ensure that lack of information does not influence policy making.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a highly skewed tusker to makhna ratio with as many as 93% of the country’s bull elephants being makhnas (Deraniyagala 1955). Whether this is caused by past poaching is an issue for debate although poaching for ivory has been  very well documented in Sri Lanka (Santiapillai and Jackson 1990, Jayawardene 1994). Despite the low tusker numbers in the country, there have been reports of poaching to supply the ivory trade. In the space of a few months in 1998, 22 elephants were poached in Sri Lanka.  Most of the poached animals were females but their tushes were taken by the poacher (Jayawardene pers. comm.1998). Organised poaching gangs have been killing elephants in the North Central province as well, with as many as six elephants poached in this area in January 1996 (Anon 1997b). There are also reports of elephants poached near Wilpattu National Park.  The Sri Lankan ivory trade which at one time was renowned for its beautiful and intricate carvings (Martin and Martin 1990, Jayawardene 1994) is now largely dependent on ivory from tushes, or old, yellowed pieces of ivory.  This fact is verified by the 1997 survey of Sri Lankan ivory markets (see Chapter on trade) by the current project which found that  most of the ivory in the market was from tushes.

It is to be noted that the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka have not been surveyed due to civil disturbances which make it inaccessible. Information of poaching from these areas is also very sporadic and unreliable. Although recognising that this very inaccessibility will prevent any trade here as it is completely closed to tourists, the areas are critically important for supplying the trade with ivory. There are several reports that poaching continues in that part of the country and of elephants becoming unwitting casualties of landmines in the ongoing war between the Sri Lankan Government forces and the  LTTE.


Poaching of elephants in Thailand has been documented in the past by several authors (Santiapillai 1987, Santiapillai and Jackson 1990).  In the 1970s nearly 10% of the country’s population was estimated to have been poached for meat and ivory (Storer 1981, Santiapillai 1987). Between 1992 and 1998,  25 males were poached for ivory (Srikrachang and Jaisomkom 1998). Reports have also come in of at least six elephants that died mysteriously (two confirmed as having been poisoned) in the Prachuab Kiri Khan province of Thailand in November 1997 (FI 1998).

Apart from the poaching of wild elephants, at least 21 domestic elephants had their tusks illegally cut  between 1985 and 1994 to supply the ivory trade (Srikrachang and Jaisomkom 1998). This assumes importance when you consider the fact that the country has  3800 captive elephants compared to 2000 wild ones  (Lair 1997, Srikrachang and Jaisomkom 1998). Other than this, the illegal capture of wild elephant calves is the single largest problem threatening Thailand’s elephants currently.



Elephant poaching has been documented in Myanmar by many authors in the past (Santiapillai 1987,  Olivier 1978, Aung 1997). Lack of systematic mortality data of elephants is a constant problem in Asia and Myanmar is no exception. There are qualitative records from the Rakhine Yomas, Bago Yoma, Lower Chindwin, Shan states, Tennaserim district and Katha district which have been known to be particularly prone to poaching. In some areas, whole populations are believed to have been wiped out due to poaching. In 1998, Myanmar officials admitted to some  poaching in the Rakhine Yoma mountains,  which was on the increase (Ye Htut pers. comm. 1998). Private and government owned captive elephants were also increasingly getting to be the targets of poachers on the lookout for ivory. Poaching is considered still rampant  although no figures are available after the period 1982-1991 when 55 elephants were recorded as having been killed (Aung 1997). Caheng Ta Li near the Rakhine Yomas is also known to have had poaching incidents in the last few years (Myint Shwe pers. comm.  1998).


Poaching in Laos has been documented in the past, with 42 elephants poached in 1992 alone (Venevongphet 1995, Kempf and Jackson 1995). Current poaching figures are not available with the government although the killing of elephants for ivory is reported to be occurring, even though sporadically (Khanbouline pers. comm. 1997).


Poaching of elephants is not very high in Vietnam primarily because of the very low number of elephants in the country. Previous estimates have been revised to give a country population of around 150 elephants (Sukumar 1998,  Walston and Trinh Viet Cuong in prep.). However, given the extremely small population, any poaching is a critical issue for the country.


Very little is known about Cambodia, given the civil disturbances in the country. What is known about it is that poaching, in a generic sense, is probably peaking in the country. One newspaper report quoted a senior environment ministry official as saying that nearly 50% of the country’s forest had been destroyed (Anon 1997). Ratnakiri and Mondolkiri (both having elephant populations) were reported as being among the worst hit. The official is quoted as saying that three to four poachers could be arrested on a daily basis if more money were available with the Cambodian government to do so. Poaching elephants for ivory has been reported in Ratnakiri Province (Martin and Phipps 1996) and Mondolkiri (Desai pers. comm. 1997).

During field visits to Vietnam, Cambodian officials admitted to rampant poaching in the Virakchey area in eastern Cambodia and reported illegal ivory to be plentifully available in at least three Cambodian towns (Lic Vuthy pers. comm. 1998).


People’s Republic of China

Hunting for subsistence is common in the People’s Republic of China, and in Xishuangbanna province, for example, it is estimated that each household has at least three guns ( Mackinnon et al. 1996). Poaching of the Asian elephant is reported in the country, despite a small population and very stringent penalties for killing  protected species.  Two people were charged in November 1995 for killing 15 elephants and selling the tusks.  Both of them along with two others who were charged with trading ivory were convicted and executed (Lee and Parry-Jones 1997,  Kempf and Jackson 1995)


There have been reports of poaching from Malaysia including one in 1998, where an elephant was killed in Belum RF in peninsular Malaysia. However, as the project team has not visited the country, very little data is available on the current situation.


There are stray records of poaching in Sumatra (Ramono pers. comm. 1998) although on the whole, the country does not seem to have been hit by a poaching wave. However, given the present economic recession in Indonesia, there is a general attempt to make fast money and this may soon spread to include the wildlife trade as well.

Can a direct co-relation be drawn between  poaching and the downlisting of three populations of the African elephant?

The critical question that confronts scientists, statisticians, policy makers and conservationists today, is whether the current poaching wave of elephants (be it in Africa or in Asia) can be attributed to a single decision taken at a meeting in Harare in June 1997. The impact of the meeting, as mentioned earlier, had  been felt by traders in Japan and China ( FI 1998) and in India (Menon et al. 1997) even before the actual meeting took place. There was evidence of stockpiling of ivory in at least two Asian countries and trade intelligence pointed to there being a general awareness in both domestic and international trade circles about the importance of the meeting.

After the meeting, it became imperative for all those monitoring the impact of the downlisting, that methods be formulated for establishing safeguards as well as co-relations between the CITES decision and poaching, if any. However, all efforts thus far to draw a co-relation between the two have failed, perhaps due to the following reasons.

An acute shortage of time: One year, or in fact even a few years, is scientifically too short a period to detect, let alone analyse, any trends in mortality, especially poaching. In a long lived species such as the elephant a rigorous study, could take even one or two human generations. Even shorter studies would require considerably more time than has been given to monitoring teams before a confirmation of the decision.

A shortage of resources: While plenty of governmental and non-governmental resources were ploughed into establishing the endangering of the African elephant and its subsequent elevation to Appendix I in 1989, very little monetary, manpower and logistical resources have been made available for the monitoring of the status of the Asian elephant in the given period.

While this monitoring process is being put in place,  the single largest country population of the Asian elephant is experiencing a poaching crisis. It is recognised that the poaching figures that have been maintained thus far at the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre or by the Government of India (see Graph II ) are not corrected for effort. This has been taken into account while preparing future monitoring models where it will be incorporated. However, for the purpose of this report, it is important to state the following:

The figures of poaching for India maintained by the Project Elephant Directorate, Government of India, are official records and are independent of NGO efforts to do the same. Indian wildlife conservation goes back a few centuries, the Wildlife Protection Act has been in place for more than a quarter of a century and the Project Elephant Directorate itself is in its seventh year of functioning. The effort put in by the State forest departments and central agencies have not significantly changed in the last few years. Comparing the Project Elephant allocation of resources for the past five financial years (see Graph IV) it is seen that except for a single dip, funding has been more or less stable (Anon 1998).

The effort put in by the AERCC has remained fairly stable for the past four years since the inception of this project with one project co-ordinator and five field assistants (some temporary) collecting data.

Is there a mechanism in place that can predict or, in the short term, monitor the impact of the CITES decision on the Asian elephant?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora came into existence with the specific aim of monitoring the international trade in wildlife and determining its effects on threatened species ( Brautigam 1994).  The  unwritten code of conservation ethics of ensuring that a precautionary principle be adopted with regard to the species was very much in evidence when CITES was conceptualised and formed (Olindo pers. comm. 1997). However, the CITES decision-making process at the 10th COP did not adequately take into account the status and fate of the Asian elephant when deciding upon CITES Conference Resolution 10.1 and 10.2.  The argument, no doubt, could be that the decisions did not directly concern the Asian elephant, although several documents pointed to the existing links between the two (Menon et al. 1997, Anon 1997). This, philosophically, is a violation of the basic principles that govern such a treaty.

In retrospect, however, a monitoring system was proposed under CITES Conference Resolution 10.10 for ‘measuring and recording current levels and trends of illegal hunting and trade in ivory, in African and Asian range states, and in trade entrepots’ and ‘ assessing whether and to what extent observed trends are a result of changes in listing of elephant populations in the CITES Appendices and /or the resumption of legal international trade in ivory’. This in many ways was tantamount to admitting that such a system was not in existence when Conference Resolution 10.1 was adopted.

If such a mechanism was not in place at the time of taking the decision, it should at least have been put into place at one of two stages in order to make sure that the decision did not adversely affect the species concerned.

At the 40th or the 41st meeting of the Standing Committee which would precede the 11th COP;

At the 11th COP.

The 40th  meeting of the Standing Committee was  held in London in March 1998, where IUCN and TRAFFIC presented the proposed MIKE and ETIS systems to monitor the trade. The systems were based on the results of a workshop held in Nairobi where one of the authors was also present. It was clear at the workshop that the monitoring of illegal killing would not be possible in the short term and that once this system was set up it would still take a far longer time frame to register trends and more importantly, to establish causality.

The report in its executive summary clearly states: ‘In both cases (the two-tiered system including a short term monitoring and a long term monitoring) data available by early 1999, when the CITES Standing Committee meets to determine if limited commercial trade in ivory and other elephant products can commence, will likely not be sufficient to test the question of causality. Some indications of general trends may be available but only if adequate resources are provided and rapid data collection and analysis could be undertaken’.

At the 40th meeting of the Standing Committee there still was not in place any system that could internationally monitor the impact of the relevant CITES decisions. This situation continues till the current date, on the eve of the 41st meeting of the Standing Committee in February 1999 in Geneva. Both parts of the first stage have passed, therefore, with the monitoring system still not in place.

It is understood and appreciated that considerable work has been undertaken in the interim for creating such a system. However, both African (Leakey in litt. 1998), and Asian (Sukumar in litt. 1998, Appendix II) experts are of the opinion that the proposed system has a number of inherent flaws. Kenya, an African range state, has noted  that serious flaws exist in the MIKE and ETIS systems,  such as :

Lack of transparency

Very high cost of implementation

Technical flaws in data collection and analyses

No baseline conditions for establishing causality

Non-consultation with East African experts.

Similarly, in Asia, a working group of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group noted (Appendix II) among other things that:

The proposed systems are not in a position to establish causality before either the Standing Committee meetings or the 11th COP.

Adequate sites have not been selected in Asia to ensure proper, statistically valid results to emerge.

In the short term, the proposed systems are inadequate for the purpose of their establishment.

Additionally, the MIKE system does not allow for monitoring the tusker to makhna ratio which is a clear yardstick to study the selective targeting of tuskers in Asian elephants.

In short, therefore, there currently does not exist any system that could prove that Conference Resolution 10.9 has impacted or not impacted on either species concerned. Clearly a case of putting the cart before the elephant, to put it colloquially! With specific reference to the Asian elephant, the lack of a monitoring system could have disastrous consequences for an already endangered species.