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Managing Wild Populations: Surveying Elephants Through Dung Counts

studying elephant dungThe initial goal of the wild elephant management project was to determine the status of elephants in two parks in Myanmar, Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park (AKNP) and Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary (HWS). Due to the difficulty of tracking elephants through dense rainforests, counting dung is the most common method currently being used to estimate Asian elephant numbers. By estimating the defecation rate and rate of decay in different environments, researchers can estimate the density of elephants within a specified area.

In February 2001, Smithsonian staff instructed selected staff of both parks in elephant dung census methods. The survey teams were then deployed in each park to conduct censuses over a total of three years. In order to generate accurate data, the teams were required to traverse trails over the entire park, through dense jungle and in all weather conditions.

In AKNP, survey teams walked a total of 1,939 km and found 280 dung piles, averaging 0.14 dung piles per km walked. In the less accessible HWS, survey teams walked a total of 1,423 km and detected 689 dung piles. Dung encounter rates were slightly higher than in AKNP, at a rate of 0.48 dung piles per km walked.

The results of the surveys were sobering. In both parks the density of dung was much lower than expected, indicating that there are only two to 41 elephants remaining at AKNP and between 40 and 183 wild elephants at HWS. The populations in both parks are much smaller than expected from other elephant ranges in South and Southeast Asia.

graph showing dung density and elephant population

The small number of elephants in AKNP is restricted to the southwestern portion of the park. Seasonal movements among habitats may occur, but the elephants do not venture into valleys or hills in other parts of the park. Elephants at HWS seem to be much more evenly distributed and utilize the majority of the protected area. In contrast to AKNP, where annual pilgrimages involve thousands of people, few people travel through HWS.

It seems likely that elephant populations at AKNP experienced dramatic declines in the recent past (the last 20 years, according to local inhabitants). Researchers were not able to determine the cause of this decline, although some staff suspect that hunting with firearms is the reason. Park staff regularly patrol the area, but remaining elephant populations may not recover and could perish if the threat is determined. Increased resources for wildlife patrolling could help protect these critical populations.