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Habitat loss drives Sumatran elephants closer to extinction

IUCN reclassifies Sumatran elephants as critically endangered

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2012 – The Sumatran elephant has been downgraded from “endangered” to “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) after losing nearly 70 percent of its habitat and half its population in one generation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced today. The decline is largely due to elephant habitat being deforested or converted for agricultural plantations.

WWF called for an immediate moratorium on habitat conversion to secure a future for Sumatran elephants.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Sumatran elephant subspecies as critically endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species, the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. There are only about 2,400 to 2,800 of the animals remaining in the wild, a reduction of about 50 percent from the 1985 population estimate. Scientists say that if current trends continue, Sumatran elephants could be extinct in the wild in less than 30 years.

According to the IUCN Red List, “Although as a species Sumatran elephants are protected under Indonesia law, 85 percent of their habitats which are located outside of protected areas, are outside of the protection system and likely to be converted to agricultural and other purposes.”

Sumatra is thought to hold some of the most significant populations of Asian elephants outside of India and Sri Lanka. Yet within the Asian elephant’s range, Sumatra has experienced perhaps the most rapid deforestation rate. Sumatra has lost over two-thirds of its natural lowland forest in the past 25 years – the most suitable habitat for elephants – resulting in local extinctions of the elephant from many areas.

“The Sumatran elephant joins the Sumatran orangutan, the Javan and Sumatran rhinos and the Sumatran tiger on a growing list of species found in Indonesia that are critically endangered,” said Dr. Barney Long, Asian species expert at WWF. “Without urgent and effective action to save them, we could lose some of these animals from the wild forever.”

WWF is calling on the Indonesian government to prohibit all forest conversion in elephant habitats until a conservation strategy is determined for protecting the animals.

“It’s very important that the Government of Indonesia, conservation organizations and agro-forestry companies  recognize the critical status of elephant and other wildlife in Sumatra and take effective steps to conserve them,” said Ajay Desai, Asian elephant advisor for WWF. “Indonesia must act now before it’s too late to protect Sumatra’s last remaining natural forests, especially elephant habitats.”

Elephant numbers have declined by more than 80 percent in less than 25 years in Sumatra’s Riau Province, where pulp and paper companies, like Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), and palm oil plantations are causing some of the world’s most rapid rates of deforestation. Habitat fragmentation has confined some herds to small forest patches, and these populations are not likely to survive in the long term.

WWF calls upon all stakeholders, including the Government of Indonesia, palm oil companies, members of the pulp and paper industry and conservation organizations, to work together to conserve Sumatran elephant habitat.  Urgent measures are needed to protect Sumatra’s remaining natural forests so that future generations of Indonesians can inherit a natural heritage that includes wild elephants, tigers, orangutans and rhinos.