Postgraduate: Tracking endangered elephants with satellite technology
Using the very latest GPS and satellite communication, technology experts from the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) and the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks are tracking some of the remaining elephants to assess the effectiveness of the Malaysian government’s elephant conservation and management practices.
The Malaysian Ministry of Natural Resources, through its Department of Wildlife and National Parks recently signed memorandums of understanding on research collaboration with the UNMC and 10 public Malaysian universities. The department and UNMC also signed 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 at UNMC. The project has received funding 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 says: “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.”
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 elephants 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 have 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 an 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.
MEME in action: Dr Campos-Arceiz and his team work in close collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks 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.
For more information, visit www.camposarceiz.com or www.meme-elephants.org