It is without a doubt that we continuously try our best to protect both Asian and African elephants. One of the ways to do it is giving them conservation areas. But what if the elephants prefer the riskier zones?
A team of researchers observed the movement and habitat preferences of 102 Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. The scientists have recorded over 600,000 GPS locations.
After piecing it all together, they found that a lot of these land giants spent more than half of their time outside the protected areas. They like slightly disturbed forests and areas of regrowth.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the conservation zones are useless. The elephants preferred areas to roam are within three kilometers of protected area boundaries.
The researchers believe that the reason for this is due to the animal’s food habits. Elephants like to eat grasses, bamboo, palms and fast-growing trees, which are common in disturbed environments. On the contrary, those trees are not that common in old-growth forests, their protected areas.
According to the researchers, “Our results show that protected areas are very important, but not enough as an overall strategy for Asian elephant conservation.
“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.”
Conservation efforts futile?
The research authors reiterate that the findings don’t suggest that initiatives to conserve the Asian elephants are pointless. In fact, they still strongly believe that protected areas are still important for global conservation strategies.
They stated, “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.”
So, based on this discovery, the researchers came up with three key recommendations to keep conserving the Asian elephants.
First, include “core areas” within the protected lands so that the animals can find safety with ease.
Second, make ecological corridors so that networks of conservation areas can connect well.
Third, incorporate efforts to reduce human-elephant conflicts, particularly around the borders where they like to roam. Other than that, it’s also important to promote tolerance towards elephants’ presence and emphasize on protection of people’s safety and livelihoods.
The continuous human-elephant conflict
It is a little bit ironic that the Sundaic region, a well-known spot for biodiversity, has only 50% of the area’s original forest. Furthermore, less than 10% of it is formally protected.
As the native, original inhabitants of these areas, Asian elephants now have to live in highly fragmented landscapes in this region. And to make things worse, they’re now endangered.
Since the roaming ranges of Asian elephants are extensive, they often end up in human-populated areas. It inevitably has led to conflicts ever since the beginning of the civilization of this region. Let’s also not forget to mention that humans have exploited them for the longest time.
Now, as mentioned, the researchers analyzed the movement of these giants. They compiled the date from over a decade of fieldwork and observation by three research groups.
After, they compared this data with the locations of formally protected zones. They want to know how much time the elephants spent in said areas and the surroundings.
Despite the label, protected areas are not all the same. They range considerably based on the level of protection the animals receive.
That is why in this research, the authors compared the data to the protected areas listed in the World Database of Protected Areas. They didn’t include exploited forest reserves used for logging.
So, we still don’t exactly know the extent of the elephants’ rather risky behavior in other areas.
Even though the authors don’t mention about comparing data to the conservation areas listed in the World Database of Protected Areas in the future, they want to conduct a study on another focus.
First author Dr. Antonio de la Torre said, “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 we can reduce the costs of this conflict for both people and elephants, and how to increase people’s tolerance towards elephant presence, should be the top research priority in the area.”
Stress hormones affect Asian elephants’ social life
Speaking of Asian elephants, there’s a new, interesting study that examines how these animals are so similar to us humans in terms of stress and social behaviors.
For mammals that live within groups, social behaviors are well-documented and common. Take us humans, for example. Humans with friends or other social connections may have improved health, increased life span, and a lower disease risk.
Relationships like that can be attributed to the fundamental effects of lowered circulating glucocorticoid hormones, also called “stress hormones.”
The question is, though, how does social behavior connect to stress in other species? Many studies of this connection are based on human and non-human primates, while we know that other group animals have their own social life.
That is why the researchers try to observe Asian elephants—animals with complex social life.
Lead author Dr. Martin Seltmann said, “We investigated four different aspects of the social world of 95 Asian timber elephants living in their natural habitat in Myanmar. These elephants work in the timber industry, where they pull and push logs out of the forest.
“However, spending much of their time free in their natural habitat allows the timber elephants to express many of their natural behaviours, which is often not the case in fully captive systems, such as zoos.
“This is a unique research environment and population that allows us to study many elephants living in their natural environment, but at the same time have detailed information about their social lives.”
Lonely elephants have more stress
In captivity, each elephant works together with a handler, a relationship that can last a lifetime. Because of that, a handler knows elephants’ behaviors inside out and can give thorough information on their social interactions with other elephants.
From 2014 to 2018, the researchers asked the handlers if the elephants have friends or if they like to be alone. Then, the team examined the size of the elephant work groups as a measure of social group size.
Other than that, they also assessed how many males and females within the work group and if there were calves within that group. Additionally, the authors wanted to know the concentrations of stress hormones from the elephants’ fecal samples.
Co-authors Martin Seltmann and Professor Virpi Lummaa stated, “We found, that male elephants show higher levels of stress when they have no friends and when they are in social groups with more males than females.
“Female elephants show lower levels of stress when babies are present in the social group. The size of the social group is not related to levels of stress hormones in males nor females.”
In a way, elephants are just like humans, when it comes to how social life affect our psyche.
Stress in wild elephants?
The scientists thought that females would show signs of stress when being alone, because wild elephant females spend their lives with other female relatives.
Interestingly, however, compared to male elephants, females that are alone might still be able to interact with other individuals without forming strong social bonds. Therefore, the lack of these social bonds may not be a problem for them at all.
Furthermore, the study authors think that strong male social bonds might be more important in the semi-captive setting than in purely wild elephants.
This discovery shows that it is important for elephants to have and maintain sociality so that they can function well. Therefore, it may help develop methods towards maintaining and improving welfare of captive social animals like the land giants.