September 8, 2017

Asian Elephants’ Dietary Preferences expose them to Conflicts with Humans

Asian Elephants’ Dietary Preferences expose them to Conflicts with Humans

Asian elephants have a sweet tooth for palms and bamboo. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Fully grown Asian elephants eat around 150kg of food every single day. Gourmands they are, yes. Yet by consuming so much vegetation they do more than just feed themselves; they also help keep complex ecosystems functioning well. For instance, by devouring larger plants they make way for smaller plants to grow. They also carry seeds far and wide in their dung, thereby assisting plants to spread across larger areas.

“Elephants also weed the forest, acting as ecological filters; they make certain plants scarce by selectively feeding on them, and others abundant just by not eating them,” explains Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, the principal investigator for the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), a research project between Perhilitan and the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The expert calls elephants the “gardeners of forests.”

Asian elephants are highly social animals that need plenty of freedom to roam and forage for food. Photo Credit: Perth Zoo

Yet even if Asian elephants eat a lot, it doesn’t mean they will eat anything. It turns out that the jumbos are pretty fussy eaters. A team of researchers from the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and the University of Florida have set out to investigate the dietary habits and preferences of Asian elephants in the country and have found that the lumbering pachyderms have a marked preference for palm trees, grasses and bamboo within dense forests with closed canopies in the Royal Belum State Park and the Krau Wildlife Reserve in Pahang.

The researchers, who published their findings, “Foraging Impacts of Asian Magafauna on Tropical Rainforest Structure and Biodiversity,” in the  journal Biotropica, discovered that Asian elephants, unlike their African counterparts, prefer to chow down monocot plants, such as palms, bamboo and grasses. This is an important finding because the animals’ dietary preferences expose them to greater risks of coming in contact with humans. That is because they may be more likely to try and raid oil palm plantations and bamboo groves, hereby drawing the ire of farmers and plantation owners. Just recently one of their cousins, a wild pygmy elephant, was shot dead in Sabah, likely by an angry farmer.

“Asian elephants seem to be more interested in monocot plants, especially palms,” Dr Campos-Arceiz explained. “These results have very interesting and important implications in terms of elephant ecological impact. Maybe this is the reason why Asian elephants do not seem to modify forest the way African elephants do. And human-elephant conflict is greater in Malaysia because we are planting palms which are the very food elephants love to eat.”

Sadly, the number of wild Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia has dropped over the past decades. Today there are somewhere between 1,220 and and 1,450, living in small herds spread across the states of Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah, Perak and Johor. The largest concentrations of the pachyderms live in a national park in Pahang. “To ensure that these elephant species survive, the cooperation of all parties is very much needed to play their respective roles,” Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar recently noted. “This earth is ours together. We should live in harmony with the flora and fauna that need each other for our survival in the future.”

Amen to that.




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