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The Problem

Wild Asian elephant populations have been declining over the past decades and Myanmar’s vast forests are believed to be a major stronghold for the species, containing more than 6,000 wild elephants. In an attempt to get more accurate numbers, Myanmar and National Zoo wildlife biologists have been searching for wild elephants in two of the country’s protected areas for more than two years. Unfortunately, the preliminary results were sobering. Researchers sighted wild elephants only twice, and evidence from elephant dung counts revealed that populations are unusually small.

However, a possible cause of these poor results may be the shortcomings of conventional methods of tracking and censusing wild elephants. Finding these 8,000-pound animals in the forest is more difficult than it sounds. The Myanmar jungle is very hard for scientists to traverse and wild Asian elephants are reclusive, avoiding people whenever possible. There may be many elephants in the forest that researchers were simply unable to find. It was obvious that new methods needed to be employed in order to find the Asian elephants, and one of the most promising was the use of satellite tracking.

elephant capture team in Myanmar
Elephant capture team, including "Koonkie," which are domestic elephants used to protect the team from attacks by wild elephants.

The Expedition