ASIAN ELEPHANT

Elephas maximus

Asian elephants are a remarkable species that faces a myriad of challenges posed by dwindling natural habitat and increasing conflict with humans. By tracking them, Smithsonian scientists can gain a better understanding of their habits and the best way to protect them.

Facts

Height: 1.8-3.7m (6 to 12 ft)

Weight: 2700-5500kg (6 to 12,000 lbs)

Conservation Status: Endangered

Elephants are one of the most intelligent animals in the world- displaying the ability to have complex thought and problem solving skills, as well as showing signs of self-awareness.

Tracking

Smithsonian scientists, including Melissa Songer, Peter Leimgruber, and John McEvoy, have been tracking Asian elephants in the wild since 2014. In Myanmar their populations are at an all-time low and the species is competing with the rapid spread of the human population into their vital habitat. Knowledge regarding this habitat is minimal, however, and basic information such as their home range sizes, resource utilization, and actual movement throughout these ecosystems is basically nonexistent. In order to track the elephants, each individual must be fitted with a 14 kilogram (30 pound) collar. This collar carries a GPS satellite tracking unit as well as a counterweight that keeps the tracking unit situated at the top of the animal’s neck. Having the GPS in this position ensures a higher likelihood of successfully transmitting strong GPS signals through the dense canopy and back to the scientists.

Over the three year study, Smithsonian scientists and their collaborators have successfully collared 19 individuals. These elephants have given us priceless insight into their movement throughout landscapes, interactions among other elephants, as well as instances of human-elephant conflict. Unfortunately, many human-elephant interactions do not end well—several of the 19 elephants that Smithsonian scientists have collared have died due to poaching (link to latest paper- Sampson et al.). Asian elephants are poached for their ivory as well as their hide; both of which are valuable in the illegal wildlife trade.

Poaching is not the only challenge the Asian elephants face. Myanmar’s human population is expanding, which results in habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation from agricultural development. An increasing human population results in increasing instances of human-elephant conflict. When elephants are forced out of their home ranges by expanding agricultural areas and plantations, they often return to those areas and raid the crops. Elephant crop raiding is devastating to farmers—usually resulting in a significant loss of income for their families and sometimes even fatalities if the elephant crushes their home. Ultimately, the elephants pay the price and are harassed or killed by farmers, hit by trucks or trains, or poached for their hides and tusks.

By continuing to track Asian elephants throughout their native lands, Smithsonian scientists can continue to understand what factors influence the movement of these magnificent and endangered creatures.

Meet the Team

Peter Leimgruber, Ph.D.

Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center

Melissa Songer, Ph.D.

Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center

John McEvoy, Ph.D.

Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center

Resources

Scholarly Articles

Doyle, S., Groo, M., Sampson, C., Songer, M., Jones, M., & Leimgruber, P. (2010). Human-elephant conflict- what can we learn from the news? Gajah, 32, 14–20.

Fernando, P., & Leimgruber, P. (2011). Asian elephants and seasonally dry forests. The Ecology and Conservation of Seasonally Dry Forests in Asia, 151–163.

Leimgruber, P., Gagnon, J. B., Wemmer, C., Kelly, D. S., Songer, M. A., & Selig, E. R. (2003). Fragmentation of Asia’s remaining wildlands: implications for Asian elephant conservation. Animal Conservation, 6(4), 347–359. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1367943003003421

Leimgruber, P., Min Oo, Z., Aung, M., Kelly, D., Wemmer, C., Senior, B., & Songer, M. (2011). Current Status of Asian Elephants in Myanmar. Gajah, 35, 76–86. https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-59037

Leimgruber, P., Senior, B., Uga, Aung, M., Songer, M. A., Mueller, T., … Ballou, J. D. (2008). Modeling population viability of captive elephants in Myanmar (Burma): Implications for wild populations. Animal Conservation, 11(3), 198–205. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-1795.2008.00172.x

Songer, M., Aung, M., Allendorf, T. D., Calabrese, J. M., & Leimgruber, P. (2016). Drivers of Change in Myanmars Wild Elephant Distribution. Tropical Conservation Science, 9(4), 1940082916673749. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940082916673749

Sampson C, McEvoy J, Oo ZM, Chit AM, Chan AN, Tonkyn D, et al. (2018) New elephant crisis in Asia—Early warning signs from Myanmar. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0194113. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0194113

Collaborators

Partners in the Sky

MONREC (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation)

Friends of Wildlife (Local NGO)

Grow For Prosperity (Aung Myo Chit’s Local NGO)

WWF

FFI

WCS

USFW