Asian elephants prefer to live on the edge

A common approach in animal conservation such as for Asian elephants is to provide protected areas for that species to live in safety, but, what if the animals prefer life on the outside?

An asian elephant group with two collared individuals
An elephant group with two collared individuals. The collared female is a member of the group, while the male joined the group just for a few days. Credit: Alicia Solana-Mena/MEME

A new study has found that Asian elephants prefer habitats on the periphery of the protected areas designated for them. Instead of remaining inside the protected areas, the endangered animals showed a strong preference for being in areas within three kilometres of the boundaries of the protected areas.

An international group of researchers investigated 102 Asian elephants across Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo finding that the majority of elephants spent over half of their time in disturbed forests and areas of regrowth outside the protected zones. The protected zones examined included only those listed in the World Database of Protected Areas and not forest reserves used for logging.

It is thought that the wandering behaviour of the elephants is attributable to their degustational preferences: grasses, bamboo, palms and fast-growing trees are common in disturbed areas, but much rarer in the old-growth forests that characterise protected zones.

A male (bull) elephant wearing a gps collar
A large male elephant wearing a GPS collar in Kenyir, Peninsular Malaysia. Credit: Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz/MEME

The findings, which were gathered via GPS locations taken over a decade, suggest a shift in thinking is needed around conservation efforts for the elephants.

“We believe protected areas are the most effective tool for biodiversity conservation in general”, says Dr Benoit Goossens from Danau Girang Field Centre and Cardiff University and a lead author on the paper. “In the case of Asian elephants, protected areas provide long-term safety and represent the core areas for elephant conservation.”

The main existential threat for Asian elephants is human-conflict.

There is need to balance the preferences of elephants to venture outside the protected zone which is a common source of conflict when their habitats overlap with those of humans.

Read more: Male elephants stick together around humans

“Given their preference for habitats outside the protected areas, elephants will inevitably come into conflict with people”, says Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden and the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, and another lead author of the paper. “This highlights the importance of promoting human-elephant coexistence around protected areas.”

The research makes three recommendations for future conservation efforts involving Asian elephants:

  1. Include large protected areas with core areas where elephants can find safety.
  2. Incorporate ecological corridors to connect networks of protected areas.
  3. 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.
Collared female elephant and calf in borneo
Collared female elephant with her young calf in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia. Credit: Rudi Delvaux/DGFC

The main existential threat for Asian elephants is human-conflict.

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”, says Dr Antonio de la Torre, first author of this study and conservationist at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia.

Please login to favourite this article.