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Asia battles to save endangered elephants

Written by: Staff

KUALA GANDAH, Malaysia, March 3 (Reuters) Siput is wrinkled, hairy and terribly distressed.

Just three months old, the recently orphaned elephant misses her mother and dislikes sharing her living space with Syawal and Mardof, two boisterous older males in her new home in a Malaysian sanctuary.

Across Asia, elephants are being driven from their homes as people clear forests to build houses, roads or cultivate farms, provoking often violent encounters that claim the lives of scores of humans and elephants every year.

Poachers are another threat, hunting them for their tusks, meat, hair and skin.

As the numbers of Asian elephants dwindle, conservationists are pressing governments to do more to protect them and find inventive ways of helping man and beast live safely together.

Located on the edge of a national park, the Malaysian elephant centre, set up in 1974, has trained and cared for more than 500 abandoned animals, before returning them to forests.

Six-month-old Syawal came to the centre after guards scared his mother away from an orchard. She left him behind in her haste to escape.

Larger, darker-skinned Mardof, pulled by villagers from a well after he fell in, is the oldest animal in the stable, at eight months. He parades his dominance by headbutting Siput each time a keeper strokes her.

''We will keep the baby elephants here until they are grown up,'' said Nasharuddin Othman, who leads a staff of 24 people looking after the 10 young elephants at the sanctuary.

''They cannot survive by themselves. We will train them to survive on their own and then take them back to the forests.'' Wildlife officials from 13 Asian nations met in Kuala Lumpur in January for the first time to co-ordinate efforts to protect elephants, whose numbers have fallen to 60,000 in Asia from 150,000 two decades ago.

But experts warn the figures are a rough estimate at best.

''We're just making a ballpark estimate that's not really valid,'' said scientist Ajay Desai of the World Conservation Union, who attended the Kuala Lumpur meeting.

''One of the things we agreed on is we need to come up with more realistic figures and more realistic answers as to how many elephants there are and what their status is. It's a huge step forward if we can move towards that goal.'' FROM MICROCHIPS TO CHILLIES In the desperate battle to save their elephants, Asian nations are adopting innovative strategies, ranging from microchips implanted under the animals' skin to African chillies strung on barbed wire to drive them away from standing crops.

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