Tracking endangered elephants with satellite technology

May 23, 2012 By Lindsay Brooke

A hundred years ago wild elephants on the Malay Peninsular could be counted in their thousands — now there are less than 1500. Over the last century around 50 per cent of forest cover in Peninsular Malaysia has been lost.

Using the very latest GPS and satellite communication technology experts fromThe University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC)  and the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks are tracking some of the remaining to assess the effectiveness of the Malaysian Government’s elephant conservation and management practices.

Today, 22 May, to coincide with International Day for Biological Diversity, The Malaysian Ministry of Natural Resources through its Department of Wildlife and National Parks is signing memorandums of understanding on research collaboration with the UNMC and 10 public Malaysian universities. The Department and UNMC are also signing a Memorandum of Agreement specifically for MEME, the Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants research project.

MEME is a five year research project led by Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, an ecologist and conservation expert, in the School of Geography. The project has received funding of RM3.36m (£700,000) from a foundation set up by the Malaysian based multinational Sime Darby to help MEME develop a long term strategy to protect the country’s elephant population. Other important donors for the project are Singapore Zoo, Copenhagen Zoo, the National Zoo (US), US Fish & Wildlife Service and private philanthropists.

Dr. Campos-Arceiz said: “If we lose the elephants we lose a unique element of tropical ecosystems. When elephants walk they trample the soil and impact the forest in a way that no other animal does. When elephants eat, they modify the structure of vegetation, releasing plant parts that can be consumed by other herbivores. When elephants eat fruits, they disperse seeds. Ultimately, elephants create habitat heterogeneity and promote forest regeneration. All this will be lost and we will have a much more simplified ecosystem that is less resilient and has lost a lot of its diversity.”

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Mitigating human-elephant conflict

Hunted for their tusks and stripped of their natural habitat to make way for crops, roads and new settlements the Asian elephant is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.

MEME will produce information on how elephants move in natural habitats as well as in human-dominated landscapes and how they respond to translocation — one of the practices used to move elephants away from areas of human-elephant conflict (HEC). The project is also looking at non-invasive techniques to extract DNA and hormones from elephant faeces, developing cost-effective strategies to mitigate human-elephant conflict and improving our understanding of elephant ecological function in tropical rainforests.

Tracking technology

MEME and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks aim to develop a conservation strategy based on scientifically sound knowledge of elephant behaviour, ecology and a clear understanding of the underlying causes of human-elephant conflict. In the next few years they intend to fit 50 elephants (three per cent of the Malaysian elephant population) with GPS-satellite tracking devices to monitor how they are responding to the changes in their habitat, how they react to translocation  — and what effect current conservation measures such as highway viaducts and wildlife corridors are having on the elephant population on the Malay Peninsula.

Once the GPS collar is fitted the elephant’s whereabouts can be tracked in the field using VHF radio signal or at any location with internet connection to access the GPS locations transmitted by the collar via satellite phone. Indeed, thanks to USB internet modems, the team is often able to access internet in the field, which makes field tracking far easier.

Tropical forest at risk

Recent research led by Dr. Campos-Arceiz has shown that the elimination of seed-dispersing animals such as the Asian elephant puts the structural integrity and biodiversity of the tropical forest of South-East Asia at risk.

His team of international experts have confirmed that not even herbivores like tapirs can replace them in doing this essential job. Their research ‘Asian Tapirs Are NO Elephants When it Comes To Seed Dispersal’ has just been published in the academic journal Biotropica.

Dr. Campos-Arceiz said: “Elephants and rhinoceroses play a unique ecological role that cannot be replaced by other species. These mega herbivores act as the ‘gardeners’ of humid tropical forests. They are vital to forest regeneration and maintain its structure and biodiversity. If the elephants and rhinoceroses are lost the ecological trajectories of the ecosystem will change irreversibly.”

MEME in action

Dr. Campos-Arceiz and his team work in close collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and of Peninsular Malaysia. They have a permanent field centre deep in the Malaysian jungle, a field project manager and a team of research assistants and field assistants who are already monitoring nine elephants which have been fitted with the specially designed tracking collars.

The new funding will help to support three PhDs specifically for Malaysian students to study elephant stress levels, the development of genetic molecular tools to study elephant populations in tropical rainforests and the characterisation and mitigation of HECs.

Dr. Campos-Arceiz said: “These scholarships will help to establish a bigger pool of local experts in wildlife management. We also employ staff from the Orang Asli community, Malaysian indigenous people, to tap into their expertise and knowledge of the elephants and their habitat in the rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia.”

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