The Global Goals and Asian Elephant Conservation

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for people and the planet. In celebration of Earth Month, we broke down all 17 Global Goals to discover how each relates back to our mission to protect and conserve Asian elephants and their habitat.

Global Goal 1: No Poverty

In developing countries where elephants roam wild, like Sri Lanka, poverty and elephants can become intertwined. Small farmers can lose their entire livelihood overnight from an elephant raid, and an 8,000 pound animal walking through a farm can destroy everything in its path.

Finding ways for farmers to make a living alongside Asian elephants is key to the survival and success of both elephants and people. Our Coexistence Project studies both sides to develop innovative ways that farmers can maintain a steady income while living peacefully alongside wild Asian elephants.

Global Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Developing sustainable agricultural methods is a solution to the ongoing human-elephant conflict. As Asian elephant habitat is taken over for agricultural purposes, they are left with nowhere to go. Elephants trample and eat crops, which in turn leads to conflict.

By testing alternate crops that are less preferred by elephants and protecting key habitats and corridors from development, we are working toward solutions for humans and elephants to peacefully share the land.

Global Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being

Zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, can spread from human-wildlife interaction. Preventing disease transmission is essential for human well-being on a global level, as we’ve seen with the pandemic. Physical contact of any kind exposes both humans and animals to lethal pathogens from around the world, so it’s best to avoid any wildlife interactions like riding, bathing, or touching elephants.

As borders open and travel resumes around the globe, make an effort to be a responsible traveler and take the pledge to commit to Ethical Elephant Experiences.

Global Goal 4: Quality Education

The survival of elephants depends on the goodwill of those living closest to them. Supporting education in vulnerable communities creates understanding and is essential for developing long-term environmental stewardship.

As part of our Coexistence Project, we sponsored preschools living alongside elephant habitat to provide electricity, water supply, classroom materials and playground equipment. Building relationships with schools and supporting education gives us an opportunity to foster a new generation that will love and protect nature.

Global Goal 5: Gender Equality

Women tend to be the backbone and forward-thinking visionaries of many communities. At our project sites in Sri Lanka, women have a crucial role to play in creating sustainable livelihoods that enable coexistence with elephants and other wildlife. By investing in economic opportunities for women, we can help communities become more resilient and progressive.

Global Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Water is a necessity for ALL life on Earth. Our water supply is the result of ecological cycles that depend on healthy natural systems and a stable climate. This precious resource needs to be used and shared wisely for the ultimate benefit of both people and nature.

Asian elephants need access to fresh water, and so do the surrounding communities, farmers, schools and children. One of the schools we sponsored, Samadhi Preschool, only wanted one thing. They simply requested a water supply. With our support, they not only got a water supply, but we also erected a water tank and installed plumbing for the toilet and kitchen sink. They were then able to use this water supply to renovate the preschool building, with their own resources.

Global Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Energy derived from biofuels may be touted as renewable, but they often come with a heavy ecological price. Oil palm and traditional firewood, as well as large dams, can destroy ecosystems native to elephants and other wildlife. To be truly sustainable, energy sources should not only reduce our carbon emissions, but also reduce our overall impact on the biosphere.

Global Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Wildlife tourism offers an opportunity for vast economic growth in developing countries. This industry can support entire communities, opening up new jobs for tour guides and drivers and also bringing tourists to spend money on accommodation, food and souvenirs.

However, there can be a dark side to wildlife tourism. Irresponsible tour operators and facilities that act under the guise of “sanctuaries” can threaten endangered species, like Asian elephants, even further. Check out our responsible tourism page for the do’s and don’ts of wildlife experiences.

Global Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

As we continue to develop and foster innovation, we must recognize that the traditional model of agriculture has a huge carbon footprint, causing land degradation, water scarcity and pollution around the world. Newer methods of agriculture should focus on regenerating and repairing damaged ecosystems by restoring the earth’s essential natural infrastructure alongside our own.

Our socio-ecology working group is focused on finding innovative solutions for this. We are studying and developing economically viable agricultural practices that are compatible with land-sharing between people and elephants.

Global Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities

Those on the frontlines of conservation consist of communities that are often socially and economically marginalized. Empowering these communities through social justice and sustainable economic opportunities goes hand-in-hand with environmental protection.

Through our Elephant Ecosystem Services working group, we are working on assessing the services and benefits provided by elephants and their habitats so that they can be better protected.

Global Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

The impacts of urbanization and development extend far beyond our cities themselves, from the resources that go in, to the waste that comes out.

Sri Lankans dispose of 15 million polythene sheets per day and 20 million plastic shopping bags per month. These items, along with countless others, end up piled in landfills and garbage dumps. Our team often sees Asian elephants scouring garbage dumps for food scraps, and accidental ingestion of polythene or plastic can be fatal for Asian elephants and countless other species.

Cities and communities must make it a priority to curb their ecological impact, as much as possible, for the health of people, wildlife and the planet.

Global Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Habitat loss from land-use conversion is the number one threat to Asian elephants, along with many other endangered species. The products we buy often contain ingredients sourced from far-off landscapes and come at the cost of natural ecosystems.

It’s important to be a responsible consumer by recognizing that all choices matter, from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the paper we use every day.

Global Goal 13: Climate Action

Small farmers experience dual threats to their survival from both climate change and elephant damage, but there are agricultural methods that can help mitigate both issues. Using more resilient, ecologically-appropriate crops can reduce water and fertilizer consumption, buffering farmers against climate change while also reducing crop loss from elephants.

Global Goal 14: Life Below Water

Watersheds connect all life on Earth, flowing through river ecosystems and out into the open ocean. In the wild, Asian elephants depend on fresh water to survive. Water greatly influences their daily activities, reproduction and migration, so they stay close to any source of fresh water when possible. Healthy waterways and a healthy ocean are essential in sustaining all life on our blue planet.

Global Goal 15: Life on Land

Asian elephants are known as the gardeners of the forest. Their large size and the long distance they cover enables them to spread and disperse seeds, helping forest ecosystems thrive. They also create open pathways through dense areas, which serve as corridors for other wildlife. Even their footprints create habitats for smaller species, like frogs. Protecting Asian elephants and their habitat doesn’t only benefit the elephants. The ecosystem services of these animals trickle down, ultimately helping all life on Earth.

Global Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Wildlife and wild places suffer when institutions are weak or corrupt. Prime examples include land-grabbing, as we’re seeing with Dahaiyagala Wildlife Sanctuary, and wildlife trafficking. Strengthening these institutions requires everyone to play a part in exercising civic duty to enhance peace, justice and equity in institutional structures within our communities.

Global Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals

Trunks & Leaves is part of various working groups with partner organizations like WWF, Bring the Elephant Home and the Elephant Valley Project. These groups bring together scientists and specialists to work together toward innovative solutions around the issues facing Asian elephants and other wildlife. Current working groups focus on Socio-Ecology and Human-Elephant Conflict, Elephant Ecosystem Services and Tech for Conservation.

Fostering relationships between organizations enables collaboration and brings together different perspectives. Organizations, companies and countries must all work together in this way to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sumatran Elephant: Human-Elephant Conflict, Habitat Use and Home Ranges

By Gaius Wilson

The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is decreasing with approximately 1500 elephants left in the wild in fragmented populations. Deforestation, loss of habitat and poaching for ivory are amongst the major threats to the survival of this species.

The Leuser Ecosystem (which forms a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’) and Ulu Masen in Aceh, Sumatra are a stronghold for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and other critically endangered wildlife (e.g. orangutans, rhinoceros, and tigers). Both Leuser and Ulu Masen are essential for the survival and conservation of the Sumatran elephant, but much of their habitat falls outside the protected areas and in the most threatened lowland forests, creating elephant human contact. This makes it critical that effective mitigation strategies are developed that take into account elephant behaviour and the use of technology such as early warning systems to reduce conflict with the local communities.

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Can Asian elephants use water as a tool?

By Dr. Lisa P. Barrett

Asian elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo

The floating object task is a puzzle that comparative cognition researchers present to animals (including humans) to study the evolution of cognitive abilities, like cause and effect understanding and the ability to use water as a tool. To solve the task and retrieve the floating reward inside, you must add water to a tube to raise the water level and reach the reward. Some primates, like orangutans have been able to solve the task by carrying water in their mouths from a drinker and spitting it into the tube to reach a peanut.

My colleague, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, and I presented this puzzle to elephants for the first time (Barrett & Benson-Amram, 2020). We wanted to see if elephants’ unique trunk morphology would make them well-equipped for the floating object task. Since they spray water for bathing, and hold water in their trunk as a vessel for bringing it to their mouth, we predicted that they would be up for the task. We collaborated with the National Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo to carry out this research. We used a tube filled about 1/3 of the way with water, baited with a floating marshmallow. As is often the case with animal research, things did not go as we expected.

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Deja Vu at Dahaiyagala

by SdS

Elephants at the Pokunutenna reservoir.

When we saw the destruction, we felt that strange sensation of history repeating. We’d been here before, a little over ten years ago.

Dahaiyagala sanctuary is a little-known, nondescript little strip of forest north of Udawalawe National Park, one of the two official “corridors” that supposedly links the park to the outside world. It is supposed to lead to another forest area, which conservationists and wildlife authorities refer to as Bogahapattiya. It also borders Pokunutenna village, a hotbed of unrest with respect to human-elephant conflict. Dahaiyagala represents unfinished business to the various parties, in very different ways.

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A Christmas Wish

By USW

Back in 2004, a male calf was born to the young female elephant, 458. The calf had baby tusks and this made his birth all the more special. He was named Therapuththa, or T458. We named him Therapuththa but labeled him as T458, following his mother’s ID, this is because it helps us keep track of him in the future when we catalog his movements, features and characteristics. His name, Therapuththa, was taken from ancient history: it is said that King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors protecting him and Therapuththa was one of the most loyal and endearing ones. The mother, 458, was often spotted with two other female elephants, who we have labelled as 040 and 041. After tracking this herd for so many years, we have unfortunately not seen any calves after Therapuththa. So he was quite special, besides being a tusker, which is rare in Sri Lanka.

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Bees are Helping Thailand’s Elephants and Farmers to Peacefully Coexist – Bee Fences in Asia Part 2

A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand

Guest post by Antoinette van de Water

Beehive fences in Thailand. Photo: BTEH

Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.

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Can bees help farmers in Sri Lanka deter elephants from their crops? Bee fences in Asia – Part 1.

The tiny bee vs. the world’s largest land mammal…

Guest post by Kylie Butler

Elephants outside Wasgamuwa National Park / Apis cerana bees being transferred into a hive (Photos: Kylie Butler)

Over a decade ago now, Dr. Lucy King developed the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent, capitalising on a then-recent discovery that African elephants avoided African honeybees (Vollrath & Douglas-Hamilton, 2002). The beehive fence is a relatively simple, inexpensive deterrent, aiming to be a tool that communities can use independently following set-up. The basic premise is that a series of beehives surround an area to be protected from elephants, and if elephants attempt to enter, they will disturb the beehives, causing the colonies to swarm (refer to King et al. 2009; 2017 for more details). It should come as no surprise, that the success of multiple beehive fence trials in Africa, led to a curiosity as to whether this technique could also help Asian communities experiencing comparable levels of crop-raiding.

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Responsible Tourism & Ethical Elephant Experiences

Mother and calf - ethical tourismOn World Elephant Day, Trunks & Leaves is challenging travelers and travel companies alike to commit to responsible tourism practices when it comes to viewing and interacting with Asian elephants.

 For the first time in recent history, the world has slowed down, the travel industry is on hold, and humankind has a chance to reflect on the way we’re doing things and how we can improve in the future – for both humans and wildlife.

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Explosive Food and What it Tells Us About Ourselves

By SdS

Injured elephant in water.

Photo by Mohan Krishnan of injured elephant in the water.

Somewhere, there is a hungry elephant, following her nose, wandering an ever-diminishing forest in search of food. She ventures to her usual places, finds them lacking. She wanders further from where she feels safe, considering what she may find closer to the villages nearby.

Somewhere there is a hungry person. Perhaps a farmer, perhaps a hunter. He is looking to drive away pests from his land, or maybe to earn a bit of money from bushmeat. He selects a large fruit or vegetable, say a pumpkin or pineapple. He hollows it out, hides an improvised explosive inside, leaves it where some animal will find it.

We know what happens next. Continue reading

Baby tantrums

We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!

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August 22 2012

Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…

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