Photo by John Hayes

Seminar summary: Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) - Moving towards an evidence based conservation

By: Marta Prat, Boris M. Arevalo, Alexis C. Cardas, Thomas Smith

Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz is an associate professor in Tropical Conservation Ecology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and principal investigator in the MEME project. Dr. Campos-Arceiz presented MEME's ongoing multidisciplinary project, which has a special focus on the conservation and research of the Asian elephant in Malaysia. This species is the largest terrestrial mammal in South-East Asia, a hotspot of biodiversity, but with the highest rates of endangered megafauna species (Ripple et al. 2016). The Asian elephant has lost approx. 95% of its historical range due to deforestation, habitat degradation and fragmentation, impacting population viability. Historically, poaching has not been a major threat to the species, as only males have tusks (smaller than their African relatives), but is becoming a threat nowadays. Asian elephants have a very important ecological function in seed dispersal and nutrient movement through the ecosystem. In addition, they have very complex social structures and behaviors, sometimes comparable to humans.

In Malaysia, favorable wildlife conservation and land-use planning policies promoting habitat connectivity have been developed in the last decades. However, Dr. Campos-Arceiz pointed out that there are gaps on the implementation and enforcement process, with lack of expertise on conservation and scarce baseline data on which to make science-based decisions. To help fill in this gap, MEME was established as a government-university collaboration with the objective of leading evidence-based conservation. Until now, MEME has conducted studies on:

  1. Presence in human-dominated landscapes: based on local people's experience, they found elephants occurring only in 10.5% of the grids surveyed, representing a range reduction of ~ 70% in the past 35 years.
  2. Behavior in the rainforest: overcoming difficulties to observe Asian elephant's behavior within the dense rainforests, they found that elephants live in very small group sizes (6.4 ± 3.3 individuals), and have a simpler organization than elephants found in open areas. They also found an increased nocturnal activity, which could be a response to avoid human presence in the forest, and highly female biased sex ratio.
  3. Foraging impacts: they found clear differences in impacts from herbivory, with higher seedling density where elephants are absent.
  4. Diet: the study of dietary preferences on wild elephants can be dangerous. However, they observed captive elephants foraging in the forest. Elephants showed preference for lianas and roots, with high selection at the species and plant-part level. They also found elephants to be able to disperse larger seeds than thought before, and to have consequences on forest composition.
  5. Ethno-elephantology: traditional lifestyles of the indigenous communities promoted coexistence, sometimes enhanced by a spiritual connection and higher tolerance. However, conflicts are becoming more frequent as lifestyles become agriculture-based.
  6. Impacts of infrastructures: they found roads crossing most of the elephant's home ranges, reducing permeability up to 80%. Nonetheless, elephants did not avoid roads, and could even be attracted to them for the new foraging opportunities, becoming attractive sinks and increasing the opportunities for poaching to occur.
  7. Human-elephant conflicts: relocation of conflictive individuals has been the most common mitigation strategy applied. However, they found it to be ineffective as some individuals return to the same location from where they were taken and might cause conflict again. They also found high individual behavioral variability.
  8. Responses to translocation (hormones): Contrary to what was expected, they found low levels of cortisol in relocated individuals, which they attributed to exhaustion or fatigue, not to a non-stress response.

Dr. Campos-Arceiz pointed out the need for long-term studies with larger sample sizes in order to obtain better elephant population estimates, evaluate their role in the ecosystem, their behavior and how they interact with people, as well as the need to develop better management and mitigation strategies. With all the undergoing research, he highlighted several areas to target for the future management and conservation of the Asian elephant such as: land-use planning, mitigation strategies, economic compensation schemes, and education and public awareness. As the principal investigator of this project, Dr. Campos-Arceiz aims to train future conservation leaders, promote interdisciplinary work and help to improve biodiversity conservation in Malaysia by engaging the government and local population.

References:
Ripple, William J. et al. "Saving the World's Terrestrial Megafauna." Bioscience66.10 (2016): 807-812. PMC. Web. 31 Oct. 2017.