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The Declining Asian Elephant Population

Sherman de Silva, a faculty member from UC San Diego, led a research team in discovering new, suitable habitats for the Asian elephant population after losing about two-thirds of their inhabited ecosystems. Analyzing previous insights regarding the change in land use over the past 300 years, the historic suitable elephant habitat has suffered under the colonial-era land-use practices in Asia, such as timber extraction and farming or agriculture.

As an assistant professor of ecology and founder of the elephant conservation nonprofit Trunks & Leaves, Silva noted the importance of the elephant population in her study published on April 27, 2023 regarding the rapid decline. She referred to the species as “ecosystem engineers” to the ABC News.

However, Silva explained, the findings regarding the limited ecosystems are significant because Asian elephants are extremely adaptable and able to live in various habitats, from open and dry grasslands to dense rainforests. Meaning, the changing landscape of Asia underscores the fragmented spaces left for the survival of ecosystems without human inference.

The late 1600s and early 1700s illustrated the beginnings of massive changes in elephant population decline as the land practices brought on by the colonial-era proceeded into the European industrial revolution. This massive exploitation of resources across the world led to inadequate habitat areas for the remaining elephants. In the mid 20th-century, the rise of industrial agriculture contributed to severe habitat loss. The 1700s continued holding habitats 100% suitable for elephant populations within the 100 kilometers provided, yet Silva and her team discovered the portion declined to less than 50% when comparing the appropriate ecosystems left in 2015.

Her and her team mention the continued conflict between human-dominated regions as elephants adapted their behaviors to “co-exist” with the influx of communities in those suitable areas (as their responses vary due to human-modified landscapes). Mainland China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sumatra, and Thailand have all lost more than half of their previously suitable elephant ecosystems.

Asian elephants, as of now, remain endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

Editor: Chelsea D.


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