The same satellite system used by the U.S. military to track vehicle convoys in Iraq is helping World Wildlife Fund shed light on the little-known world of pygmy elephants in Borneo.
This week marks the six-month anniversary of the first pygmy elephant's being captured and outfitted with a collar that can send GPS locations to WWF daily via satellite. Now, for the first time, the public can track the movements of the elephants online through an interactive web map at www.worldwildlife.org/borneomap.
"No one has ever studied pygmy elephants before, so everything we're learning is groundbreaking data," said Dr. Christy Williams, who leads WWF's Asian elephant conservation efforts and worked with experts to use commercial satellite technology to track Asian elephants for the first time. "We will be following these elephants for several years by satellite to identify their home ranges and working with the Malaysian government to conserve the most critical areas."
Five elephants have been collared by WWF and the Sabah, Malaysia, Wildlife Department, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Among the preliminary findings from the study:
- The elephants' movements are noticeably affected by human activity. Elephants living in areas with the most human disturbance, such as logging and commercial agriculture, spend more time on the move than elephants in more remote areas. One of the collared elephants living near human activity, dubbed Bod Tai, covered a third more ground than did Nancy, who lives in more remote jungle.
- Most of the elephants spend at least some of their time in palm oil plantations or near human habitation, which leads to conflict with people. In recent years, much of the elephants' habitat has been converted to tree plantations that produce palm oil, the leading export crop for Malaysia. Each elephant belongs to a herd of 30-50 elephants but often splits off into smaller groups for days or weeks at a time. The home ranges of Nancy and Taliwas, who were collared in nearby forests, overlap, suggesting that the two elephant groups be related. Since elephants live in matriarchal societies, WWF collared only adult female elephants so that each elephant collared represents a whole herd's movements.
- The elephants' diet consists of at least 162 species of plants (in 49 families), including several dipterocarp tree species. This was determined during field tracking that supplements the satellite tracking. It was proved that forest quality influences the diversity and distribution of elephant food in the forest, with encroachment into palm oil plantations being higher along the degraded forest-plantation areas.
Mahedi Andau, director of Sabah Wildlife Department, described the project as very important for achieving the department's objectives and said the results from the study could be used to assist his department in preparing Sabah's elephant conservation plan.
The pygmy elephants were determined by WWF in 2003 to be a likely new subspecies of Asian elephant but very little is known about them, including how many there are. Pygmy elephants are smaller, chubbier and more gentle-natured than other Asian elephants. They are found only on the northeast tip of Borneo, mainly in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
"We are learning about more than just elephants with this project," said Raymond Alfred, project manager of the elephant tracking project in Sabah. "Elephants are a 'keystone species' and habitat engineers whose impact shapes the forest in important ways for the many other species with whom they share their habitat."
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