Collapse of Asian Elephant Range (1960s striated, 1990s solid)

The world is changing rapidly and we are facing the profound consequences of radical global changes such as large-scale deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss and species extinction. Because these changes occur over vast areas, within time frames beyond everyday human perception, and at places far away from our homes, we often remain unaware until a catastrophe is unavoidable. For example, few people are aware that Asian elephant habitat has shrunk by 70 percent during only 30 years and that fewer than 40,000 elephants remain in the wild. Habitat loss is the single most important factor in this species’ plight.

Example of the identification of critical elephant habitats in Myanmar using satellite imagery and field surveys.

The situation is grim, but scientists at NZP’s Conservation GIS Lab are using satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to identify, monitor and fight habitat loss and species extinction globally. Collaborations with NASA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey allow Zoo scientists to utilize vast amounts of remotely-collected satellite images showing the condition of large and inaccessible areas—for example, the habitats and last strongholds for Asian elephants, giant panda, clouded leopard, and many other species. Zoo scientists integrate these data with their own extensive field research to monitor and assess the effects of habitat loss on these focal species.

Recently the Zoo’s Conservation GIS lab has started to integrate all of these data in a computer-mapping system to identify priority sites for conservation, using the Asian elephant as a prototype species. These analyses will allow us to identify conservation problem areas or hotspots that need immediate conservation intervention to stop a species’ decline and prevent its extinction. With funding from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, we are expanding this system to the National Zoo’s Conservation Atlas including many threatened species in the Zoo’s collection and using its strengths not only for research and field conservation purposes but also as an education and outreach tool.