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Programs to protect elephants may help keep China's small population from dying out

March 17, 2010 |  2:50 pm

China elephants

Their tendency to eat farmers' crops, destroy property and, even, occasionally attack, has not endeared China's tiny (and dwindling) population of Asian elephants to their human neighbors in the country's southwest. Far from it, in fact.

Despite the fact that most Chinese who've come in contact with wild elephants would prefer they hadn't, a coordinated effort by animal activists, environmentalists and the Chinese government is helping the people learn to respect the elephants.

Approximately 300 wild elephants remain in China. Their fans in the country hope a combination of stiff penalties for poaching; monetary compensation to farmers in order to grow crops elephants won't like; and public education about what really happens when ivory is harvested for consumer products will help turn the tide in the pachyderms' favor.

No cases of elephant poaching have been reported since four people were executed for the crime in 1995. A program organized by the International Federation for Animal Welfare pays farmers up to $150 to grow tea, which elephants turn up their trunks at, rather than corn, which they gobble up with vigor. (A similar program aimed at dealing with rampaging elephants in southern Africa helps farmers to grow a thick barrier of chile peppers around their more delicious crops to keep them out.)

Advertisements in some of China's large cities inform the public that elephants are actually killed when their tusks are harvested, a fact which many were previously unaware of. "We see young mothers taking photographs of the posters and saying to us later, 'Gee, if I knew I wouldn't have bought that bracelet,'" Grace Gabriel, director of IFAW's work in Asia, said of the campaign.

Of course, those working to protect China's few remaining elephants still have hurdles to deal with; land development continues to threaten the animals' habitat and has pushed their small population into three separate, unconnected areas. But environmentalists and the Chinese government are working, albeit slowly, to set up corridors by which the elephants can travel between the three distinct areas.

Another concern is the danger of genetic diseases spreading because the number of elephants reproducing is so small. Some local authorities in the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province, which is home to the famous Wild Elephant Valley preserve, have expressed interest in creating a captive breeding facility for elephants similar to Chinese facilities where giant pandas are bred.

Learn more about the efforts to save China's elephants in Sunday's story by The Times' Beijing bureau staffers Barbara Demick and Nicole Liu.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A group of wild elephants is seen in the Wild Elephant Valley in 2008. Credit: Liu Shiyang / New China News Agency

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