Field in Focus: Elephants in Myanmar

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For decades, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists and partners have traveled to Myanmar to study Asian elephants, a species threatened by poaching, habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. Only 30,000 to 50,000 of these animals remain in the wild, scattered throughout fragmented habitats across 13 countries in Asia.

Using satellite GPS collars, the scientists are tracking the movements of Myanmar’s wild elephants to better understand how they use their habitat and to inform conservation efforts.


 

Humans and elephants have coexisted in Asia for thousands of years, but how people interact with land and with elephants is changing. As a result, human-elephant conflict has becoming increasingly more common. Satellite GPS collars allow Smithsonian scientists to track elephant movement, so they can identify at-risk areas and offer strategies to minimize conflict.


 

Their research has also revealed a recent and troubling rise in poaching, which may be the most urgent threat to Myanmar’s wild elephants. Unlike African elephants, Asian elephants are poached for their skin, making males, females and calves equal targets.

WARNING: This video contains graphic images.


 

Learn more about Part One: Tracking Elephants

  • A researcher holding an elephant GPS collar labeled "Elephant GPS collar, solar GPS transmitter, lightweight strap, cost $4,000, weight 26 lbs, data every hour for 2 years"
    The technology used to track elephants in the wild is the same as a smartphone. GPS collars give scientists important information about where and how elephants travel and use the landscape. They can send the coordinates of an elephant to scientists around the world as frequently as every hour.
  • Aerial photo of a green forest in Myanmar with a river
    By tracking elephants with GPS collars in Myanmar, scientists have found that elephants typically walk between 1 and 4 miles per day, but their home ranges vary in size. They can be smaller—from 60 square miles if food is plentiful—to 500 square miles if food is difficult to find and there are breeding males and females in the area.
  • An adult Asian elephant lying down in a forest in Myanmar as researchers fit it with a satellite GPS collar and veterinarians monitor its health
    Scientists only fit adult wild elephants who are healthy with GPS collars. The entire process takes about half an hour and veterinarians monitor the elephant’s heart rate and breathing the entire time. GPS collars help scientists understand how elephants use the landscape, and will help them find ways for humans to interact more peacefully with wild elephants.
  • VHF beacons
    GPS collars can send scientists the location of an elephant, allowing them to watch them move in practically real-time. They can track an elephant for up to 2 years.
  • A photo of SCBI researcher John McEvoy in a forest in Myanmar holding an elephant GPS collar. The photo has a quote: "Asian elephants live in the most densely populated parts of the world, and yet we know comparatively little about them." - John McEvoy

Learn more about Part Two: Human-elephant Conflict

  • An Asian elephant with large tusks walks near houses in Myanmar
    An Asian elephant's home range can extend from 60 square miles up to 500 square miles. Smithsonian scientists study elephant behavior and ecology to help prevent human-elephant conflict where those home ranges overlap with areas where humans live.
  • Scientists fit a wild Asian elephant in Myanmar with a GPS tracking collar
    By tracking Asian elephants in Myanmar with GPS collars, scientists are learning more about where and how elephants are coming in contact with humans.
  • A wooden carved sign on the side of the road in Myanmar. An elephant is carved and stands atop the words "Wild elephant cross"
    A street sign demonstrates the proximity of humans to Myanmar's wild Asian elephants.
  • An aerial photo of Myanmar forest with callouts indicating where primary forest, road, houses and rice fields are located
    GPS collars can send scientists the location of elephants, allowing them to watch them move in practically real-time for up to two years. In that time, they can see if elephants are spending time near humans or in areas that have been cleared for agriculture or palm oil.

What is a mahout?

Smithsonian scientists work with mahouts and Myanmar's forestry department to study wild elephants. Mahouts are elephant keepers, trainers and trackers. Many of the elephants in their care are former work elephants that were once used as draft animals for logging.

In this video, you can see mahouts caring for their elephants, bathing them in a stream in the morning. The mahouts' elephants have free range to forage at night, and the chains they wear, called drag chains, are not used for restraint. Instead, they help mahouts locate their elephants each morning. The drag chains leave an obvious trail of disturbed vegetation and help slow down the elephants just enough to allow the mahouts to locate them.

If the mahouts and their elephants are very close to villages or farms, the mahouts can move the elephants into paddocks or tether them to trees temporarily to prevent the elephants from raiding crops or damaging homes — both of which are major challenges for people living near wild elephants. The mahouts do everything they can to ensure the safety of both the elephants they care for and the people who share their home range.

Learn more about Part Three: Elephant Poaching

  • A close-up of a GPS collar on an Asian elephant in Myanmar
    GPS collars helped uncover Myanmar's elephant poaching crisis. Smithsonian scientists and partners began investigating elephant deaths after seven of the 19 Asian elephants they had fitted with collars were poached. They found that the poaching problem was widespread and affected many more elephants than those being tracked with GPS collars.
SCBI's Conservation Ecology Center scientists and partners are working to save endangered Asian elephants. Learn more about their work.
Smithsonian scientists are tracking endangered Asian elephants in Myanmar via satellite collars. Their efforts have revealed a troubling rise in poaching.
The largest living land mammals, elephants are intelligent, social and vital to their ecosystems. Learn more about this animal.