Protected Area Management Crucial For Bornean Elephants – Study

The Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) is a small plane packed with sensors and instruments the researchers used to scan the forests of Sabah in May 2016. – Photo courtesy of CAO

SANDAKAN: Degraded forests play a crucial role in the future survival of Bornean elephants.

A new study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, finds that forests of surprisingly short stature are ideal for elephants.


“Our study indicates that forests with a mean canopy height of 13 m were those most utilized by Bornean elephants,” noted lead author Luke Evans, a post-doctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Danau Girang Field Centre.

“These forests are consistent with degraded landscapes or those recovering from previous logging, or clearance, he said, adding that the study utilized GPS tracking data from 29 individual elephants that were collared across Sabah, providing high resolution, multi-year data.

The study paired the GPS tracking data for each elephant with airborne laser-based images of Sabah’s forests, providing high resolution three-dimensional maps of forest canopy height and structure.

Co-author Greg Asner, of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, and Carnegie Institution for Science explained “Our mapping of Sabah’s forests is unique in that it provides accurate and detailed spatial information on forest structure.

A 3-D oblique view of the rainforest in Sabah. – Photo courtesy of CAO

“Combined with the GPS telemetry data for the elephants, the connection between relatively low-statured tree canopies and elephant habitat emerged in a way that was previously unknown.”

Benoit Goossens of Danau Girang Field Centre, Cardiff University and advisor for Sabah Wildlife Department, the study’s co-author pointed out the danger is that a large proportion of these lower-stature forest habitats could be prime candidates for conversion to large-scale agriculture before their importance is fully realized

“The hope is that this study will reinforce the importance of protecting habitats perceived as ‘low-quality’, rather than merely solely old growth, high carbon, forests,” added Goossens.

A female elephant and her baby crossing the Kinabatangan River. Twenty-nine individual elephants that were collared across Sabah provided high-resolution GPS data for this study. – Photo courtesy of Scubazo

The project is part of an ongoing effort, funded by the Rainforest Trust, and spearheaded by Sabah Forestry Department, to increase totally protected areas in Sabah to 30% of total land area.

“These new findings, when combined with our previous work on forest carbon, orang-utan habitat, and upcoming tree biodiversity results, will be a unique combination of studies to help Sabah achieve its conservation goals,” remarked Asner.

A female elephant with her satellite collar crossing a small river in a forest reserve in Sabah. – Photo courtesy of Rudi Delvaux