While much research attention has been focused on African elephants, very little is known about their Asian cousins. As forest dwellers, Asian elephants are extremely difficult to study. Finding these 8,000-pound animals in the forest is more difficult than it sounds. The Asian jungles can be very hard to traverse, and wild Asian elephants are reclusive, avoiding people whenever possible.
In searching for elephants for more than two years in two of Myanmar’s protected areas, Burmese and Smithsonian researchers saw elephants only twice.
Because it is so difficult to observe and track individual elephants, scientists use a number of different methods in an attempt to estimate populations and gather information on behavior and movement patterns. One of the most promising of these new methods is the use of satellite tracking. This information can be used to determine patterns such as seasonal movements, home range and habitat use.
Our international satellite-tracking program helps determine how elephants move and how much space elephant populations need; how to plan elephant conservation and land-use to stop the killing of elephants that encounter conflicts with farmers over crops; the best area for elephant conservation in Asia.
To attach a satellite collar, the collaring team must track down an elephant in the wild. The team tracks a herd using domestic elephants called koonkie, usually large adult males who are trained to protect the team from attacks by wild elephants.
One individual from the wild herd is selected and anaesthetized with a dart. Once the elephant is asleep, the radio collar is quickly attached.
An antidote wakes the elephant again in seconds, and the entire process takes less than 30 minutes from the moment the animal is darted.
Asian elephant habitat has declined by 70 percent during the past 30 years, and presently fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Habitat loss is the single most important factor in this species’ plight.
Scientists at the National Zoo’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab are using satellite imagery and ground studies to quantify habitat loss in various locations in Asia. The lab is mapping extant habitats and tracing the movements of individual elephants to develop conservation and management strategies that are essential for the survival of wild populations.
By collaborating with NASA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S Geological Survey, Zoo scientists use vast amounts of remotely collected satellite images that show the condition of large and inaccessible areas for Asian elephants, in addition to other species.
Melissa Songer uses her conservation biology and spatial analysis skills to detect human transformation of the landscape and assess its impacts. Her goal is to help sustain and restore species in the wild.
She works in Asia to collect data through field surveys and satellite tracking of Asian elephants and other species, as well as building capacity of colleagues in elephant range countries through training and mentorship.
Peter Leimgruber’s research focuses on applying GIS and satellite tracking techniques to species conservation and management. Leimgruber’s team uses satellite imagery, GIS, and radio collars to map remaining habitats for endangered species; remotely track the movements of these species; and develop conservation management strategies for species in the wild, including Asian elephants.
His latest research shows that moving problem elephants fails to reduce human-wildlife conflict and can actually lead to more deaths of both humans and elephants.