Asian elephants prefer habitats on the borders of protected areas

Collared female elephant with her young calf in Belum-Temengor, Peninsular Malaysia. Credit: Alicia Solana-Mena / MEME

New research, which offers the most comprehensive analysis of Asian elephant movement and habitat preferences to date, finds that elephants prefer habitats on the periphery of protected areas, rather than the areas themselves. The results are published in the British Ecological Society Journal of Applied Ecology.

An international team of researchers analyzed the movement and habitat preferences of 102 Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, recording over 600,000 GPS locations. They found that most elephants spent more than half of their time outside protected areas, preferring slightly disturbed forests and regrowth areas.

However, protected areas still played an important role, with elephants favoring areas within three kilometers of the protected area boundaries.

The preference for disturbed woods is thought to be linked to eating habits. Elephants like to eat grasses, bamboos, palms and fast-growing trees, which are common in disturbed environments but relatively scarce under the canopy of ancient forests.

Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden and the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, and one of the lead authors of the study, said: “Our results show that protected areas are very important, but not enough as general strategy for Asia elephant conservation.

“Given their preference for habitats outside protected areas, elephants will inevitably come into conflict with people. This highlights the importance of promoting human-elephant coexistence around protected areas.”

The authors clarify that their findings do not detract from the importance of protected areas, a cornerstone of global conservation strategies. Dr Benoit Goossens of Danau Girang Field Center and Cardiff University, the other lead author, added: ‘We believe that protected areas are the most effective tool for biodiversity conservation in general. In the case of Asian elephants, Protected areas provide long-term security and are central areas for elephant conservation.

“Our results show that elephant conservation strategies need to be realistic and recognize the nuances of elephant habitat needs and preferences, integrating holistic approaches to human-elephant coexistence outside protected areas.”

Based on their findings, the authors formulate three key recommendations for the conservation of Asian elephants:

  1. Include large protected areas with central areas where elephants can find safety
  2. Incorporate ecological corridors to connect networks of protected areas
  3. Mitigate the human-elephant conflict, particularly around protected areas, with an emphasis on protecting people’s safety and livelihoods, as well as promoting tolerance towards the presence of elephants.
Asian elephants prefer habitats on the borders of protected areas

Large male collared elephant in Kenyir, Peninsular Malaysia. Credit: Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz / MEME

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 than 10% is formally protected. Asian elephants are endangered and live in highly fragmented landscapes in this region.

Due to the vast domestic ranges of Asian elephants, they can often be found in human-dominated landscapes, which inevitably leads to human-elephant conflict.

In the study, the researchers analyzed the movement of 102 Asian elephants, recording more than 60,000 GPS locations on the Malay Peninsula and Borneo. The data was collected from over a decade of fieldwork by three research groups.

The researchers then compared this data with the locations of formally protected areas to see how much time the elephants spent in these areas and surrounding areas.

Protected areas can vary greatly in the level of protection they receive. In this study, the authors included in their analysis only the protected areas listed in the World Database of Protected Areas. They did not include the exploited forest reserves which are used for logging.

Speaking about the next steps for research in this area and conservation of Asian elephants, Dr Antonio de la Torre, first author of the study, said: “Human-elephant conflict is now the main threat to Asian elephants, but 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 of the presence of elephants should be the top research priority in the area.”

Researchers examine the complex interactions between timber, logging and forest elephants

More information:
J. Antonio de la Torre et al, Sundaic elephants prefer habitats on the periphery of protected areas, Journal of Applied Ecology (2022). DOI: 10.1111 / 1365-2664.14286

Provided by the British Ecological Society

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