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Are protected forest areas valuable to Asian elephants?

Protected areas are vitally important for conserving biodiversity worldwide, hence the drive to increase the 16.8 percent of Earth’s surface area that is currently protected, to 30 percent by 2030. This is the aim of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, as described in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. However, not all species are likely to respond in the same way to protected areas (PAs) and, while they are crucial for the maintenance of global diversity and ecosystem services, they may not be sufficient to halt the declines of some species, especially if they typically have large home ranges.

Elephants are a case in point here, and it is important to understand their use of PAs before declaring large new wildlife conservation areas in order to meet the 2030 global goals. In the Sundaic region (Borneo, Sumatra, Java and the Malaysian Peninsula), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) occur in the wild and range widely to forage and interact. This species of elephants is now endangered in Southeast Asia and the remnant populations tends to live in highly fragmented landscapes. In the Sundaic region it is estimated that only about 50 percent of the original forest remains, and less of 10 percent of it is formally protected. 

New research, giving the most comprehensive analysis of Asian elephant movement and habitat preference to date, has now been published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology in order to evaluate the role of PAs in the protection of Asian elephants and their habitats in the Sundaic region. The study was conducted by three different research teams between 2010 and 2020. More than 600,000 GPs locations were collected for a total of 102 elephants from two different populations. One of the populations was in Peninsular Malaysia, and the other in Sabah, Borneo; both of these areas are home to numerous managed and protected wildlife areas, with the levels of protection varying considerably.

The researchers found that, while PAs were important places of sanctuary, elephants from both populations spent more than half their time outside the boundaries of these PAs. They showed their biggest preference for areas within three kilometers of PA boundaries, according to the authors, which ties in with habitats such as secondary forest, forest edges, forest gaps and more open canopies. The elephants like to eat grasses, bamboo, palms and fast-growing trees, which are common in disturbed or more open environments, but relatively scarce under the canopy of old-growth forests. 

Most of the tracked elephants had more than half of their home ranges, as well as their core areas outside PAs and they generally favored habitats outside, rather than inside them. This situation is of concern because it inevitably brings the elephants into conflict with humans who farm outside the PAs. While protected forests remain important places of refuge, they will not fulfil the elephants’ need to forage on faster-growing species at forest edges.

Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden and the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, and one of the lead authors of the study said: “Our results show that protected areas are very important, but not enough as an overall strategy for Asian elephant conservation.”

“Given their preference for habitats outside the protected areas, elephants will inevitably come into conflict with people. This highlights the importance of promoting human-elephant coexistence around protected areas.”

The authors emphasize that their findings do not diminish the importance of protected areas, a cornerstone of global conservation strategies. Dr. Benoit Goossens from Danau Girang Field Centre and Cardiff University, the other lead author added: “We believe protected areas are the most effective tool for biodiversity conservation in general. In the case of Asian elephants, protected areas provide long-term safety and represent the core areas for elephant conservation.”

“Our results show that elephant conservation strategies need to be realistic and acknowledge the nuances of elephant habitat needs and preferences, integrating holistic human-elephant coexistence approaches outside protected areas.”

Based on their findings, the authors make three key recommendations for Asian elephant conservation:

  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.

Speaking on the next steps for research in this area and Asian elephant conservation, Dr. Antonio de la Torre, first author of the study, said: “Human-elephant conflict is now the main threat for Asian elephants, yet we know surprisingly little about the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies and how to promote long-term and sustainable human-elephant coexistence.”

“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.”

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By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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