One would think that it would be easy to track Asia’s largest land animal, but in fact Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are generally shy, mostly nocturnal, and stick to the forest whenever possible. Yet, it’s vital for conservationists to track the herd, if they are to keep them safe from poaching and protect both elephants and locals from potential conflict. However, a new study in mongabay.com’s open access journal Tropical Conservation Science has developed a unique strategy to track elephant herds in Sri Lanka by sticking to the water.
By tracking elephant droppings and footprints in 25 manmade water bodies in and near Yala National Park for a year, researchers found that elephants preferred lakes inside the park and those that held water year-round. They avoided lakes with temporary farmers’ huts and crops, yet were not affected by other human activity such as fishing, collecting lotus flowers, and livestock use.
The researchers conclude that the findings provide important conservation information. For example when “constructing water bodies as a habitat enrichment measure for elephants, it is more useful to construct tanks that are perennial,” in addition conservationists should ensure “that tanks have secluded areas where elephants can access water without hindrance or disturbance is of importance outside protected areas.”
The researchers also found that their method proved capable of tracking the shy Asian elephant with the advantage “of not requiring highly technical equipment or trained personnel,” the researchers write, recommending the method to other Asian elephant countries. Still, they caution that the method is most “appropriate for surveying for elephant presence in areas with restricted water availability.”
Asian elephants are currently listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List. Conservationists estimate that the global population has been cut in half in three elephant generations largely due to habitat loss and poaching.
CITATION: Pastorini, J., Nishantha, H. G., Janaka, H. K., Isler, K. and Fernando, P. 2010. Water Body Use by Asian Elephants in Southern Sri Lanka. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 3 (4):412-422.