By Micaela Jemison
Poaching wasn’t the largest conservation concern for Asian elephants, an endangered species, until satellite tracking stunned researchers.
Scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have found that poaching, not for elephant tusks but for the animal’s meat and skins, is an emerging crisis for Asian elephants in Myanmar. The findings were published March 13 in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The team first became aware of the crisis while conducting an unrelated study fitting Asian elephants—which are smaller than their African cousins—with satellite GPS collars to understand their movements better and reduce human-elephant conflict.
“It was a shock,” says Christie Sampson, who is lead author of the paper, a doctoral student at Clemson University and an SCBI doctoral fellow. “We started off with really great ideas of how we were going to be able to track the elephants across the landscape. The GPS collars were supposed to last three to five years, but we started losing the elephants relatively quickly.”
The shortest time between an elephant being collared and being poached was six days.
Of the 19 elephants fitted with satellite GPS collars, seven were poached within a year. The toll rose the longer they investigated, with on-the-ground partners finding the mutilated carcasses of 40 additional elephants in systematic surveys across the southern-central region of the country.
With skin torn from their bodies and limbs hacked off, the sight of the dead elephants was distressing for local partners whose main goal is to protect the elephants.
“Our partners within the Myanmar Timber Enterprise and the forestry department work with elephants daily and have grown up around them,” explains John McEvoy, co-author and SCBI ecologist who recently returned from a collaring mission in Myanmar. “So for them finding an elephant in that kind of state is particularly shocking. It’s bad enough for us, but for them, there is a real sense of connection with the elephants.”
Poaching Asian elephants for ivory has always been a threat to the species. However, as only some male Asian elephants grow large, prominent tusks, the effect on the population as a whole varies.
Unlike the illegal ivory trade, poaching Asian elephants for non-ivory products is indiscriminate. Killing for meat or skins that are then used in medicinal products, jewelry or furniture puts males, females and calves all at risk.
The Smithsonian has been studying elephants in Myanmar for decades, but this is the first time poaching at this scale has been seen in the country. Little is known about the causes and consequences of non-ivory poaching.
“One of the quickest ways to drive a population to extinction is to take out breeding females and take out the young at the same time,” McEvoy says. “This is really a crucial time for us to be here and to use tracking to try to clarify what is happening: where the elephants are moving, where they are being poached, how many are we losing and try to act upon that as quick as we can.”
Reports from the government of Myanmar show that poaching is on the rise in the country. During 2016, 25 elephants were poached. In the preceding five years combined, 61 elephants had been poached.
But before this study, poaching was not considered the greatest threat to the species. Conflicts between farmers, villagers and elephants were considered a widespread and increasing problem. Attracted to the crops that have taken over large swathes of their former habitat, the elephants’ appetite brings them into close contact with communities.
“Over half of the farmers that we had talked to were experiencing some form of crop raiding, and every year 38 percent of farmers lose half or more of their crops,” explains Sampson. “For every acre of crops the elephants eat they also destroy another 12 acres in the process. That’s a big issue for these people who are at the poverty level.”
Villagers and farmers fear not only the destruction of their crops but also the risk to their livestock and own lives. Elephants that smell food inside buildings have been known to trample buildings and people trying to reach the food.
Three to six people die this way per year in the Bago Yoma region, creating further discontent among communities with local elephant populations.
While reports indicate some villagers may be assisting poachers to reduce the elephant population, most communities have been surprised at the level of poaching.
“Overall when we speak with them, they want to keep elephants in their landscape. They think that elephants are important as part of their ecosystem and a part of nature. They want to keep elephants in Myanmar’s future for their children,” Sampson says.
With strong partnerships with local government and nonprofits, Smithsonian scientists are already helping to train local leaders and Burmese scientists to tackle poaching.
“The next steps for us will be to continue to track and monitor elephants while working with our partners and local communities to help stop poaching,” says Peter Leimgruber, co-author and head of the Conservation Ecology Center at SCBI.
In response to the discovery of the poaching pandemic, the Myanmar government has also created an elephant emergency response unit that coordinates patrols to prevent poaching into the future. Education in local communities through schools is also key to ensuring the elephants are protected.
“Ideally a lot of the action in the future will be taken by local Burmese people, and we will do our best to support them,” McEvoy says. “But for me, the real ray of hope is that the Burmese people are stepping up and getting involved.”