Since 1700, human activities such as deforestation, mining, and construction, have resulted in the loss of 3.3 million square kilometres of Asian elephant habitat.
Asian elephants have lost almost two-thirds of their habitat due to deforestation and increasing human use of land for agriculture and infrastructure, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday.
A group of researchers led by biologist and conservation scientist Shermin de Silva from the University of California found that forest and grassland habitats of Asian elephants have been eroded by over 64% since 1700, which equates to 3.3 million square kilometres of land.
The significant habitat loss has increased the likelihood of conflict between elephants and humans but proper planning and action can help prevent further escalation, the team warned.
“My worry is that we are going to reach a tipping point in which cultures of mutual non-confrontation toward one another get replaced by cultures of antagonism and violence – by both species … We have to de-escalate this situation,” said de Silva, who is also founder and president of Trunks and Leaves, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of wild Asian elephants and their habitats.
The Asian elephant, listed as endangered, is found across 13 countries on the continent. The study found the greatest decline in elephant habitats in China, where 94% of suitable land was lost between 1700 and 2015. That was followed by India, which lost 86%.
Over half of suitable elephant habitats have disappeared in countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia’s Sumatra. Similarly, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have also experienced a significant reduction in areas where elephants still live today.
Elephant habitat loss accelerated from 1700 due to European colonisation, causing deforestation, farming, and resource extraction, according to the study.
“In the year 1700 an elephant might hypothetically have been able to traverse as much as 45% of the ‘suitable’ area without interruption, but by 2015 this was down to just 7.5%,” the authors said.
India and Sri Lanka have the largest remaining wild elephant populations in South Asia, but colonial-era logging and road-building eradicated them from higher elevations and rainforests.
“Restoring these habitats doesn’t necessarily mean keeping them static. Instead we need to better understand the role of people (rural agriculturalists, indigenous communities) who are often marginalized in the economic systems that have been put in place,” de Silva said.
“We also need to reckon with how these dynamics can be maintained sustainably, given the current and future human population size as well as climate change.”