The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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October 22, 2012

Missouri State professor: Asian elephants facing human threat, but not from poaching

Asian elephants are in danger, but not from the poaching that their African cousins are, said Dennis Schmitt.

Instead, he said, it is encounters between wild elephants and people that threaten the elephants, and sometimes also the people.

Schmitt is professor of reproductive biology in the school of agriculture at Missouri State University, Springfield, and is the Ringling Brothers chairman of veterinary care and director of research. His morning talk in Webster Hall’s Corley Auditorium at Missouri Southern State University was part of the MSSU Thailand Semester.

Schmitt is responsible for the first Asian elephant calf from artificial insemination, born at Springfield’s Dickerson Park Zoo.

“The elephants are critically endangered,” Schmitt said of Asian elephants. He said most of his experience has been with the elephants in Sri Lanka.

He said there are no accurate counts of Asian elephants in the wild, but the best estimate is about 45,000. The largest number is in India, with approximately 26,000. Thailand has about 1,000 wild elephants.

“Thailand is unique in one way,” Schmitt said. “They probably have the largest or second-largest population of captive elephants.”

He said that number is about 2,000. They work in the logging industry.

He said Asian elephants have one form of protection that African elephants don’t have.

“In most Asian countries, the elephant is a religious symbol,” he said.

The problem elephants face in Asia, Schmitt said, is when they trample or eat fields of rice, sugar cane or other crops. He referred to it as “crop raiding.”

“Chronic crop-raiders are targeted by the people and the government,” Schmitt said. “That’s their livelihoods.”

Some elephants become fond of rice beer and destroy houses and kill people to get to it, Schmitt said.

Schmitt discussed some possible ways that have been developed to keep elephants away. Those include electric fencing, trenches, chili peppers and fences with hollow logs containing beehives. He said the smell of chili peppers is usually enough to keep elephants away, and elephants are repelled by the sound of bees.

Some farmers throw half sticks of dynamite toward elephants when they’re spotted, he said. He said farmers complain that after some time, it stops working.

“We haven’t been able to tell if the elephants are losing their hearing from that, but we know the farmers are,” he said.

Schmitt said  a potentially promising new method involves placing collars with cellphone technology around the necks of elephants. The elephants can be tracked and used in tandem with Google Maps, park rangers can be notified in real time if an elephant is wandering out of a protected park, or farmers can be notified that an elephant is approaching. He said the method is still in its experimental phase.

“We’ve just started using these,” he said. “We’ve put four of these on so far.”

He said there also is a possibility of using a solar cell on the collar to keep the power charged.

Schmitt said it is called geo fencing. He said if cell phones can be used to track people, they can be used to track elephants.

“We can put cellphones on elephants, and we are,” he said.

Balancing act

Dennis Schmitt, agriculture professor at Missouri State University, Springfield, said protecting Asian elephants is a balancing act.

“Elephants need to be able to eat and wander without being killed,” he said. “Farmers need to be able to farm without fear of elephants.”

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