Field in Focus | Saving Elephants in Myanmar

For decades, scientists with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center and partners have traveled to Myanmar to study Asian elephants, a species threatened by poaching, habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. Only 30,000 to 50,000 remain in the wild, scattered throughout fragmented habitats across 13 countries in Asia.

Follow our scientists as they track endangered elephants in Myanmar with GPS collars. They have collared about 35 elephants during the past 17 years. The more they learn about how Asian elephants travel and move through the landscape, the better they can protect them.

Part 1: Tracking Elephants

Using satellite GPS collars, scientists are tracking the movements of Myanmar’s wild elephants to better understand how they use their habitat and to inform conservation efforts.


Myanmar jungle seen from above

Scientists have discovered that Myanmar’s elephants typically walk 1-4 miles per day. Home ranges vary from 60-500 square miles based on food availability and whether breeding males and females are in the area.


Elephant being fitted with collar

Only healthy, adult elephants are fitted with GPS collars. Veterinarians monitor the elephant’s heart rate and breathing throughout the entire process, which takes about half an hour.


Researcher holding elephant collar

Collars cost about $4,000, but the information they provide is critical to understanding how elephants travel. The collars weigh 26 pounds and use technology similar to a smartphone.

What Is a Mahout?

Mahouts are elephant keepers, trainers and trackers. They also help scientists study wild elephants. Many of the elephants in their care are former draft animals that were used for logging. In this video, the mahouts bathe their elephants in a stream. The elephants have free range to forage at night. The chains they wear, called drag chains, are not for restraint. Rather, they leave an obvious trail of disturbed vegetation and slow the elephants down just enough to help the mahouts locate them each morning.

If the elephants are close to villages or farms, the mahouts can move them to prevent them from raiding crops or damaging homes — both major challenges for people living near wild elephants. Mahouts do everything they can to ensure the safety of the elephants and the people who share their home.


Posted: 1 May 2019
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