Asian elephants spend most of their time outside protected areas because they prefer the food they find there, reports an international team of scientists. But this behavior puts animals and humans at risk, researchers say.
The finding has important implications for the animals’ long-term survival as protected areas are the cornerstone of global conservation strategies to protect endangered species, the researchers say.
If protected areas don’t contain the animals’ preferred habitats, they will roam, says Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, who studies Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Menglun, China. “It’s a good intention, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Human-elephant conflict is the greatest threat to Asian elephants. In recent decades, animals from protected areas have increasingly wandered into villages. They often cause destruction, damage crops and infrastructure, and injure and even kill people.
To understand the effectiveness of protected areas for Asian elephant conservation, Campos-Arceiz and his colleagues set out to get an accurate picture of Asian elephant movements. They captured 102 individuals in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, recording 600,000 GPS positions over a decade. They found that most elephants spent most of their time in habitats outside protected areas, at forest edges and in regrowth areas. The conclusions are published in the Journal of Applied Ecology1 October 18.
Researchers suspect that elephants venture outside because they like to eat grasses, bamboo, palms and fast-growing trees, which are common in disturbed forests and relatively rare under the canopy of old-growth forests.
Philip Nyhus, a conservation biologist specializing in human-wildlife conflict at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, explains that Asian elephants live deep in dense forest and are therefore much more difficult to study than African elephants, which roam the open savannahs. “The sample size is impressive,” he says.
The finding is not unexpected given past anecdotal observations of elephant behavior, Nyhus says. But now the data shows that this is a common strategy for the survival of these animals, and not just something seen in a subset of the population. The research provides strong evidence on how to set up appropriate protected areas that reduce the risk of wandering elephants, he says.
“There will be conflicts”
The findings don’t diminish the importance of protected areas, which provide long-term security for animals, says Campos-Arceiz, who carried out the fieldwork at Malaysia’s University of Nottingham in Selangor. “But they are clearly not enough.”
The study suggests that “there will be conflict between humans and elephants,” says Guo Xianming, director of the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve Research Institute in Jinghong.
Asian elephants roam villages for a combination of reasons: an increase in elephant populations, the forests of many reserves have become denser and unsuitable for the animals, and the increase in the loss and degradation of living outside.
Last year, two herds of elephants made global headlines as they emerged from the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve and traveled hundreds of miles, wreaking havoc along the way. A herd spent five weeks at the botanical garden where Campos-Arceiz works. “It was intense,” he says.
There is an urgent need to understand how people and elephants can better share the landscape, says Guo. And the first step is to better protect people’s lives and livelihoods. “It’s the only way to peaceful coexistence.”
Reporting of the story was supported by the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists of the International Women’s Media Foundation.