The Asian elephant is the largest land mammal on the Asian continent. They live in dry to wet forest and grassland habitats across 13 range countries in South and Southeast Asia. While they prefer forage plants, Asian elephants have adapted to surviving on resources that vary depending on location.
According to new research, which provides the most comprehensive analysis of Asian elephant movement and habitat preference to date, elephants prefer habitats on the outskirts of protected areas rather than the areas themselves. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology of the British Ecological Society.
An international team of researchers studied the movements and habitat preferences of 102 Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, collecting over 600,000 GPS coordinates. They discovered that elephants spent more than half of their time outside of protected areas, preferring slightly disturbed forests and regrowth areas.
However, protected areas remained important, with elephants preferring areas within three kilometers of protected area boundaries. It is thought that the preference for disturbed forest is related to food habits. Elephants prefer to eat grasses, bamboo, palms, and fast-growing trees, which are abundant in disturbed areas but scarce under the canopy of old-growth forests.
Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz of Malaysia’s Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden and the University of Nottingham, one of the study’s lead authors, stated, “Our results show that protected areas are very important, but not sufficient as an overall strategy for Asian elephant conservation.”
Our results show that elephant conservation strategies need to be realistic and acknowledge the nuances of elephant habitat needs and preferences, integrating holistic human-elephant coexistence approaches outside protected areas.Dr. Benoit Goossens
“Given their preference for habitats outside the protected areas, elephants will inevitably come into conflict with people. This highlights the importance of promoting human-elephant coexistence around protected areas.”
The authors make clear that their findings do not diminish the importance of protected areas, a cornerstone of global conservation strategies. Dr. Benoit Goossens from Danau Girang Field Centre and Cardiff University, the other lead author added: “We believe protected areas are the most effective tool for biodiversity conservation in general. In the case of Asian elephants, protected areas provide long-term safety and represent the core areas for elephant conservation.
“Our results show that elephant conservation strategies need to be realistic and acknowledge the nuances of elephant habitat needs and preferences, integrating holistic human-elephant coexistence approaches outside protected areas.”
Based on their findings, the authors make three key recommendations for Asian elephant conservation:
- Include large protected areas with core areas where elephants can find safety
- Incorporate ecological corridors to connect networks of protected areas
Mitigate against human-elephant conflict, especially around protected areas, with emphasis on protecting people’s safety and livelihoods, as well as promoting tolerance towards elephant presence.
The Sundaic region, where the research took place, is a global hotspot for biodiversity. However, it is estimated that only 50% of the region’s original forest remains and less of 10% of it is formally protected. Asian elephants are endangered and live in highly fragmented landscapes in this region. Because of the extensive home ranges of Asian elephants, they can often find themselves in human dominated landscapes, which inevitably leads to human-elephant conflict.
The researchers examined the movements of 102 Asian elephants, recording over 60,000 GPS locations across the Malay peninsula and Borneo. Three research groups compiled the data over the course of a decade of fieldwork.
The researchers then compared this data to the locations of formally protected areas to determine how much time elephants spent in these areas and the areas surrounding them. The level of protection provided by protected areas can vary greatly. In this study, the authors only analyzed protected areas listed in the World Database of Protected Areas. They did not include exploited forest reserves used for logging.
Dr. Antonio de la Torre, the study’s first author, said of the next steps for research in this area and Asian elephant conservation, “Human-elephant conflict is now the main threat for Asian elephants, yet we know surprisingly little about the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies and how to promote long-term and sustainable human-elephant coexistence. Understanding how to reduce the costs of this conflict for both people and elephants, as well as how to increase people’s tolerance for elephant presence, should be the area’s top research priority.”