Large Asian animals found bucking extinction trends, thriving alongside humans

Asian animals, including some large and iconic species like tigers and elephants, are bucking 12,000 years of extinction trends, by thriving alongside humans, according to a University of Queensland-led study.

While, certainly, it is the feel-good story we didn’t know we needed, it isn’t all good news for large animals on the continent, but it does suggest that coexistence between large animals and humans is not an impossibility.

Palaeontologists compared historical distribution records of Asia’s 14 largest species to their current numbers in tropical forests. The study’s findings are published in Science Advances.

Four species – tigers, elephants, wild boars and clouded leopards – experienced population growth in areas where they share their habitat with humans.

Asian elephant numbers are believed to have been around 100,000 at the start of the twentieth century. Now, the endangered species number less than 50,000 in the wild. Their range has been reduced by 85%.

Tigers are the largest of the Asian big cats. About 4,500 remain, but certain subspecies have already been lost. The Caspian tiger is extinct in the wild and the South China tiger is considered functionally extinct.

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“These results show that, under the right conditions, some large animals can live nearby humans and avoid extinction,” says first author Zachary Amir, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. “These results challenge the narrative within some conservation circles that humans and megafauna are incompatible.”

“Globally there is a trend towards ‘trophic downgrading’, a term referring to the disproportionate loss of the world’s largest animals. Trophic downgrading is usually worst near humans because hunters target larger species. But in the case of tigers, elephants, wild boars and clouded leopards, their Asian populations are higher nearby humans.

“This may be the outcome of tougher anti-poaching efforts in the national parks that are closer to human settlements and are more frequently visited by tourists,” Amir says.

Asian elephant in a Thai village. Credit: DasMaddin / iStock / Getty Images Plus.

While deforestation continues to negatively impact numbers, large animals that were not hunted, continued to thrive in smaller habitats.

Previously, there have only been a few examples of large Asian species thriving in small habitats near humans, notably in Mumbai in India where leopards in an urban park prey on stray dogs,” Amir says. “Thankfully, we found that a wider range of animals can coexist with humans.”

In Singapore, poaching has been eliminated and reforestation efforts are extensive.

“Singapore has actually experienced the natural re-wilding of sambar deer and wild boars, which are now frequently observed in an urban forest, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” says Amir. “If we replicate those protection efforts in larger forests and other counties, we may see positive impacts right around the world. But before this can happen, humans need to get our act together and limit poaching.”

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Despite the good news, the results also show heavy declines in the numbers of tapir, Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bear, guar and other large animals.

Malayan sun bear. Credit: 4FR / E+ / Getty.

“The key innovation of this work was to systematically investigate the population trends of many different wildlife species,” says senior author Dr Matthew Luskin. “Then we tested if all species showed consistent trends and if similar parks retained similar species. Remarkably, we found no two forests currently possess the same group of wildlife compared to thousands of years ago.”

The authors highlight that the study offers insights into future conservation efforts.

“These results provide hope for wildlife in forests previously considered too far degraded or too close to cities,” Luskin adds. “Now we’re exploring new conservation strategies for these surprising places.”

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