Conserving an endangered species

Support from NERC is improving the lives of around 4,000 semi-captive elephants working in the timber industry in Burma, and developing knowledge that will contribute to the conservation of this endangered species.

Information on the elephants’ up to 80-year lifespan – when it is born, its reproduction, illnesses, working hours, cause of death – has already been recorded for five generations, resulting in a unique longitudinal dataset of around 9,000 individuals. Grants from NERC, a supportive and cooperative government and links with local experts have enabled academics at the University of Sheffield to access and build on this valuable data.

A study of health and survival

A project by Hannah Mumby, a NERC-supported PhD student supervised by Dr Virpi Lummaa, evolutionary biologist in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, uses the data to study the elephants’ mortality and reproduction. The research explores how complex environmental interactions affect stress and reproductive hormones.

The environment is highly seasonal and the research has identified how this variation affects mortality risk and conception rates: with a 22-month gestation period, timing of conception and birth is crucial. Surprisingly, reproduction rates are noticeably higher in the hot and dry months when there is a higher risk of infant mortality, but work demands are less. Whether this increased fertility is for physiological reasons (lower stress may lead to increased ovulation) or opportunity is still being investigated.

Economic and social impacts

Practical outcomes from the project have an impact on the productivity of the local economy and the working lives of the elephants themselves. As half of Burmese timber is extracted by elephants, their welfare is crucial to the logging industry. Recommendations to the Burmese government on elephant population management include ideal training age, weaning age and how to reduce stress to encourage higher breeding rates.

The research programme has also enabled unique training sessions for the local vets assigned to the elephants. They lack funds for advanced medicine and equipment, as well as access to the latest literature and expertise. Two workshops since 2012 have brought in experts from the UK and US to teach locals new skills and knowledge, who have then in turn learned from these elephant specialists.

Species conservation

Knowledge generated by the project is also contributing to the conservation of Burma’s endangered elephants. Birth rates among the semi-captive working population are too low to match demand, so wild elephants are caught to supplement the workforce. Making sure the working population is self-sustaining will stop this and protect wild elephants.

Hannah Mumby said: “This project is excellent because it makes life better for the elephants as well as having an impact scientifically and practically – for example, my results have led to the authorities considering changing training methods. As our work depends on this endangered species I have a responsibility to be an advocate for them, and this project means I can unite conservation biology with practical improvements for industry.”

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