Field in Focus

Field in Focus is a video series that brings you into the field with Smithsonian scientists working to save species around the globe.

For decades, scientists with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Conservation Ecology Center 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 remain in the wild, scattered throughout fragmented habitats across 13 countries in Asia.

In this three-part video series, follow scientists in the field as they track these wild elephants.

Part I: Tracking Elephants

Using satellite GPS collars, scientists are tracking the movements of Myanmar’s wild elephants to better understand how they use their habitat and to inform conservation efforts.
A health adult Asian elephant lays on the ground while scientists and veterinarians fit it with a GPS tracking collar

Only healthy, adult elephants are fitted with GPS collars. Veterinarians monitor the elephant's heart rate and breathing throughout the entire process, which takes about half an hour.

A field researcher holds a sealed GPS tracking collar that is used to track Asian elephants

Collars cost about $4,000, but the information they provide is critical to understanding how elephants travel. The collars weigh 26 pounds and use technology similar to a smartphone.

An aerial photo of a forest in Myanmar with green trees and a river running through the middle

Scientists have discovered that Myanmar's elephants typically walk 1-4 miles per day. Home ranges vary from 60-500 square miles based on food availability and whether breeding males and females are in the area.

What Is a Mahout?

Mahouts are elephant keepers, trainers and trackers. They also help scientists study wild elephants. Many of the elephants in their care are former draft animals that were used for logging. In this video, the mahouts bathe their elephants in a stream. The elephants have free range to forage at night. The chains they wear, called drag chains, are not for restraint. Rather, they leave an obvious trail of disturbed vegetation and slow the elephants down just enough to help the mahouts locate them each morning. If the elephants are close to villages or farms, the mahouts can move them to prevent them from raiding crops or damaging homes — both major challenges for people living near wild elephants. Mahouts do everything they can to ensure the safety of the elephants and the people who share their home.

Part II: Human-elephant Conflict

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. Tracking elephant movement allows scientists to identify at-risk areas and develop strategies to minimize conflict.
An aerial photo of Myanmar with areas labeled, including primary forest, road, homes and rice fields

Myanmar is covered in more than 160,000 square miles of forest. Seventy years ago, about 10,000 elephants inhabited the region, but today Myanmar is only home to about 2,000 wild elephants. These animals often forage in the areas between intact, primary forest and human development.

A group of people sit inside a house in Myanmar that has been destroyed by elephant activity

As habitat is cut down and cleared for rice paddies, palm oil production and other agriculture, humans find themselves in closer proximity to wild elephants. Even a small group of elephants has the potential to destroy a family’s livelihood.

A wooden carved sign on the side of the road in Myanmar. An elephant is carved and stands atop the words "Wild elephant cross"

GPS collars allow scientists to see how elephants move in almost real-time. Understanding how these animals navigate their changing environment can help local communities develop land-use strategies that decrease conflict, so elephants and people can live more peacefully together.

Part III: Elephant Poaching

Research has revealed a recent and troubling rise in poaching for skin and meat, which may be the most urgent threat to Myanmar’s wild elephants. Follow the scientists and their partners as they respond to a poaching crime. WARNING: This video contains graphic images.
Field researchers in Myanmar hold up their phones, documenting a poached Asian elephant with photographs

Smithsonian scientists and partners began investigating elephant deaths after seven of the 19 Asian elephants they had been tracking were killed. They found that the poaching problem was widespread and affected many more elephants than those being monitored with GPS collars. Here, researchers document a poached elephant discovered in the forest.

A close-up photo of an Asian elephant's trunk and tusk

Unlike African elephants that are primarily hunted for their ivory tusks, Asian elephants are also poached for their skin and meat. This makes males, females and calves equal targets. Simultaneously removing breeding females and young from a population can drive it toward extinction.

This work made possible in part by support from