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Asian Elephant populations threatened by rapid ecosystem decline

This report reveals significant habitat loss for Asian elephants over the last three centuries, which has led to conflicts between

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Asian Elephant populations threatened by rapid ecosystem decline

A recent study conducted using a unique dataset modelling land use changes over 13 centuries has revealed that the Asian elephant's historic habitat range has decreased by more than 3 million square kilometres in the past three centuries.

According to the research, suitable habitats for Asian elephants have shrunk by almost two-thirds in the last 300 years, with timber extraction and agriculture, including colonial-era land use practices, being the main culprits.

The global space available for Asian elephant habitats has been in rapid decline since the 1700s. Photo Credit: Nature/S. de Silva. CC BY-ND

The research team, led by a faculty member from the University of California, San Diego, used a unique data set that models land use change over 13 centuries to estimate that more than 64% of the land has been lost. Historical suitable habitat for elephants in Asia.

Habitat decline can be attributed to colonial-era land use practices such as logging, agriculture, and ranching.

The researchers stress the urgent need to protect and conserve the remaining habitats of Asian elephants, which are the largest living land animals in Asia and are currently threatened with extinction.

The study also suggests that remaining elephant populations may not have enough habitat areas, leading to potential conflicts with people as elephants adapt to human-dominated spaces.

How have humans affected wildlife?

The proportion of suitable habitat for elephants within 100 kilometers of the current range of elephants has decreased from 100% in 1700 to less than 50% in 2015.

Shermin de Silva, the study's lead author and an assistant professor at UC San Diego, there is evidence of dramatic land use change not just in Asia, but globally, in the 1600s and 1700s.

The transformation has lasting consequences that continue to impact ecosystems and species such as the Asian elephant. It is critical to address these issues and work to conserve and restore suitable habitats for Asian elephants to ensure their survival and avoid conflict with human populations.

Some human-made features, like this reservoir in Sri Lanka, can also be resources for wildlife. Photo Credit: Shermin de Silva, CC BY-ND

The study involved researchers from various institutions around the world, including the Smithsonian's National Institute for Conservation Biology and Zoo, University of Nottingham, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Vietnam National Forestry University, Wild Earth Allies, the Zoological Society of London and Colby College.

Philip Nyhus, Professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College and co-author of the study, stressed the importance of this research in understanding the history of elephant landscapes in Asia and providing a foundation for future modeling of potential elephant landscapes.

The collaboration between international researchers highlights the importance of addressing this critical issue on a global scale.

Study shows decline in elephant habitat

The study also involved contributions from three Colby College undergraduate students. According to Nyhus, the collaboration was multi-institutional, and Colby students made significant contributions to the models and analyzes used in the study.

The study offers insights into the impact of land use practices on diverse ecosystems beyond Asian elephants. By using elephants as indicators, researchers can assess the impact of land use change on a longer time scale and develop much-needed conservation strategies for everyone in the region.

As de Silva emphasized, this study provides a mechanism to examine the consequences of land use practices on various ecosystems, highlighting the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect the remaining habitats and species in the region.

Asian elephants live in countries with large human populations, and their range has been shrunk and fragmented. Their future depends on human attitudes toward elephants and their conservation. Photo Credit: Hedges et al., 2008, via Trunks & LeavesCC BY-ND

The study reveals that human impacts and climate change have led to decreased habitat ranges for several species of terrestrial mammals, including the Asian elephant.

More about Asian elephants 

Asian elephants, scientifically known as Elephas maximus, are a fascinating and intelligent species of land mammal. They are second in size to their African counterparts and have a rich cultural history in many Asian countries.

While they once roamed the entire Asian continent, their range is now much more limited due to habitat loss, poaching, and human-elephant conflict. Currently, they are found mainly in India, Sri Lanka, and parts of Southeast Asia.

Asian Elephant populations inhabit dry deciduous forests, seen here in Sri Lanka, as well as lush rainforests. Photo Credit: Shermin de Silva CC BY-ND

There are several distinguishing features of Asian elephants, including their smaller size, rounded ears, arched back, and remarkable trunk with more than 40,000 muscles.

Another notable distinction of African elephants is that only some male Asian elephants have tusks, while females do not. Unfortunately, the possession of tusks has made them a target for the illegal poaching of ivory.

Asian elephants play a crucial role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems they inhabit. As "ecosystem engineers", they modify their habitat to benefit other species by creating clearings that allow new plant growth and give smaller creatures access to food and paths through the dense vegetation.

They also live in close-knit matriarchal groups consisting of related females and their offspring, while males lead solitary lives or form small bachelor groups.

Urgent need for conservation efforts

Historical records have been difficult to obtain, but the Land Use Harmonization (LUH) data set provided by researchers at the University of Maryland was used to build a reconstruction of land use over 13 centuries.

Although Asian Elephant populations can cross roads and other infrastructure, elephant habitats across Asia are increasingly hemmed in, with firm boundaries between human and wildlife spaces. These elephants are in Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Shermin de Silva, CC BY-ND

The research team notes that traditional management systems that have changed over the past three centuries likely contributed to the loss of suitable habitat for elephants.

The authors caution that habitat restoration attempts must consider social and environmental justice for historically marginalized communities living in areas of human-elephant conflict. They suggest that more research is needed to understand the changes these habitats will face in the future.

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