Plastic waste poses a grave threat to India’s wild elephants

27 Mei 2022

Photo: Pixabay/wal_172619 

Asian elephants weigh up to 4 tons and spend most of their time in the wild foraging. They consume up to 170kg of vegetation every day, yet increasingly they also swallow plastic items along with disposed food they find in trash heaps and elsewhere.

Just how much plastic waste wild elephants consume by accident has been revelead by a team of researchers in India who found what they call the “presence of anthropogenic waste” in a third of of the dung samples they collected from the edges and interiors of some forested areas where wild elephants roam.

The plastic particles ranged in size from 1 millimeter to 355mm and twice as many plastic particles were discovered in samples collected from inside forests as in its edges, indicating that plastic pollution has reached well into the natural habitats of the pachyderms.

In Kotdwar, a region in the northern state of Uttarakhand, discarded plastic items comprised 85% of manmade waste products in elephant dung, with most of the ingested and then excreted objects being plastic food containers and cutlery as well as plastic bags and packaging. Pieces of glass, rubber, fabric and other waste materials were also found in the elephants’ dung.

“High plastic presence in elephant dung highlights its widespread use near protected habitats and lack of waste segregation practices underlining the vulnerability of wild animals to plastic ingestion risks,” the Indian scientists warn in their study.

The findings of this research conducted in India are in line with what is known of the threats plastic waste poses to Asian elephants elsewhere throughout their ranges. In Thailand, for instance, several jumbos are known to have been sickened or died after they ingested plastic waste in protected areas.

In 2020, a 20-year-old male elephant weighing about 3.5 tons was found dead in the Khao Khitchakut National Park in central Thailand with a subsequent autopsy revealing that plastic bags and other items caused a blockage and infection in its intestines. Likely the jumbo swallowed plastic trash left behind by visitors to the protected nature reserve, experts said.

“How many wild animals need to die in order to raise the conscience of some people?” Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s minister of Natural Resources and Environment, asked.

“People are still being deaf to our [no littering] campaign. We have found the loss of other animals caused by the plastic bags, with the latest case being the poor wild jumbo,” the minister lamented as he called on locals to “help us by not leaving any plastic waste inside the park.”

The Indian scientists concur, stressing that “developing a comprehensive solid waste management strategy to mitigate the threat of plastic pollution around critical elephant habitats” can go a long way towards reducing the risks plastic waste causes to elephants and other wild animals.

Local people can also do their part by separating food waste from containers so that elephants rooting in garbage dumps for food won’t accidentally swallow these plastic objects, they say.

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