Thursday, August 13

Elephants actively avoid urbanised areas

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A Bornean elephant set up with a satellite collar in Kinabatangan. — Photo by Rudi Delvaux

KOTA KINABALU: There are only an estimated 1,500 Bornean elephants in the wild, with populations mostly concentrated in Sabah.

Due to the conversion of Bornean forests for agriculture, elephants were forced from their natural habitats into human-dominated landscapes, increasing incidences of conflicts between people and elephants, such as ivory poaching, poisoning and crop raids.

The Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), a small plane packed with sensors and instruments the researchers used to scan the forests of Sabah in May 2016, fly above the rainforest of Sabah. — Photo by Greg Asner

These conflicts have resulted in rising elephant deaths, cementing this vulnerable species’ Endangered status on the IUCN Red List.

To give elephants the space they need to roam freely without coming into contact with people, conservation scientists in Sabah seek to create protected wildlife corridors, areas of land that allow elephants to travel between their habitats safely.

But to create these paths, scientists must first determine how much space elephants need to roam as well as the kinds of habitats they prefer — and avoid.

In collaboration with scientists from the Arizona State University’s Centre for Global Discovery and Conservation Science (GDCS) and Harvard University in the US, scientists from the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership and from Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah led the broadest study to date that assesses how elephants utilise different landscapes in Sabah.

The research study was published on Jan 10, 2020, in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation and was funded by several organisations including the Rainforest Trust, UN Development Programme, Avatar Alliance Foundation, RSPO, WWF, Morgan Family Foundation, Elephant Family, Houston Zoo, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Asian Elephant Foundation, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong and US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asian Elephant Conservation Fund.

A Bornean elephant being set up with a satellite collar by DGFC and the Wildlife Rescue Unit in the Kinabatangan. — Photo by DGFC

“Between 2010-2017, the team fitted the elephants with GPS collars. Data from these collars were combined with topological and LiDAR data obtained by GDCS’s Global Airborne Observatory (GAO) to track how natural and anthropogenic factors such as forest quality, topology, urbanisation, and connectivity between landscapes influenced the elephant’s movements and behaviours,” noted lead author Dr Luke Evans, a postdoctoral researcher at GDCS.

“We utilised a vast array of locational and remote sensing data to provide nuanced behavioural insight for elephant populations at severe risk of decline and even extinction,” added Evans.

The researchers discovered that elephants actively avoided urbanised areas, such as roads and villages, and moved more quickly and directly in areas with less vegetation.

“Our study showed overall active avoidance of urbanised areas by elephants despite increasing levels of human-elephant conflict throughout Sabah.

“This suggests that the increase in Bornean elephant mortality is not adequately explained without significant increases in incidences of active hunting and ivory poaching, as well as incidences of poisoning in agricultural landscapes,” said Professor Benoit Goossens from Cardiff University and Danau Girang Field Centre.

“Results published in this paper along with several additional scientific data have been instrumental in drafting the Bornean Elephant State Action Plan 2020-2029, which should be tabled imminently by the
Sabah State Cabinet,” added Goossens.

The researchers also found that elephants preferred to travel along ridgelines, suggesting that these pathways should feature in future protected areas such as wildlife corridors.

“Together, the airborne and field-based observations helped us to untangle how this keystone species utilises landscapes, providing vital insight into best practices for implementing effective large-scale management plans,” concluded author GDCS director Dr Greg Asner.