Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, blanketed in emerald-green rain forest, should be a haven for endangered Asian elephants. But cameras triggered by motion sensors reveal that most of the baby elephants in the region have been injured, some fatally, by wire traps intended for other animals.
Thousands of snares litter the stomping grounds of the Cardamoms’ resident elephants. Hunters set them in order to feed the nation’s growing demand for bush meat from illegally caught wild animals, especially wild pigs and deer. The snares often inadvertently cripple or kill other animals.
Local people believed the contraptions were not harming the elephants, according to Jackson Frechette, flagship species manager for Fauna & Flora International Cambodia, a wildlife conservation organization. “They thought elephants ripped their snares off without getting hurt,” he says.
But the 51 camera traps Frechette and his team deployed beginning in 2016 told a different story. They captured photos and videos of nearly all 45 members of the region’s core elephant population. Of the seven babies less than a year old that the researchers identified, four could be seen hobbling with severe limps and wires cinching their lower legs. The team reports the findings in the July issue of the journal Oryx.
Three older elephants also had lacerations on their trunks, but it was only the youngsters whose narrower legs had gotten caught in snares. When a baby elephant stumbles into one, the wire noose pulls tight around the ankle, eventually detaching from its anchor and often remaining deeply embedded in the animal’s flesh.
These leg wounds can be a death sentence for an elephant calf, says Susan Mikota, a veterinarian and co-founder of the U.S.-based charity Elephant Care International. The encircling wires restrict the blood supply, and the deep cuts are prone to infections that can be fatal. Two calf carcasses with injuries like the ones recorded by the camera traps were recently reported by local villagers.
The snares’ impact on young elephants could put the already strained population in jeopardy, Frechette says. The elephants are still rebounding from a period of intense poaching that ended just over a decade ago when more rigorous law enforcement came into effect in the forests.
In many ways the Cardamom Mountains are the ideal setting for the population to recover. With nearly 4.5 million acres of protected habitat consisting of three national parks and four wildlife sanctuaries, it’s one of the only places within the Asian elephants’ range that could support a population long-term. But the snares have turned the Cardamoms into a minefield.
Despite painstaking efforts by patrol teams to remove snares—more than 27,000 were pulled out of Southern Cardamom National Park in 2015—they’re cheap and easy to set, and are thus quickly replaced.
Thomas Gray, director of science for Cambodia’s Wildlife Alliance, a conservation organization, who has written about the snaring crisis in Southeast Asia, says the problem extends far beyond the elephants of the Cardamom Mountains. The practice, he says, hurts “all terrestrial animals, whether they’re elephants, partridges, or tortoises. It’s impacting almost every country’s forests.”
To counter the crisis, Gray says, legislation must be strengthened to make it easier to arrest and prosecute snare setters.
Frechette adds that reducing the demand for bush meat is crucial. To that end Fauna & Flora International Cambodia is turning its attention to consumers. The team plans to launch a campaign in the next year aimed at weaning people off wild meat.
“As long as there’s a market [for bush meat], you’ll always have people willing to go out and do the hunting,” Frechette says.