10 11/10/2012

Elephant conservation in the UK and abroad

Hi, I’m Stephanie, an Aussie vet and conservation scientist who has just completed an exciting elephant research project with support from Chester Zoo.

You might be thinking what could have possessed an Aussie elephant lover to leave the sunny beaches for the UK, a place that isn't exactly synonymous with elephants?

Well, in truth, the UK is a hub for the coordination of international elephant conservation and Chester Zoo is very much involved.

A Chester Zoo studentship helped me to work with endangered Bornean elephants in the jungles of Sabah, Malaysia. I wanted to combine my veterinary and conservation training to investigate the interaction between two key threats to endangered species survival, habitat loss and disease.

Following a conservation medicine or One Health approach, I focused on connections between ecosystem and animal health: how do changes to the environment affect the health of all its inhabitants?

In a rapidly changing world, this is an urgent question. In my search for answers, I embarked on a dream field expedition.

Bornean Elephants - Chester Zoo

An elephant can weigh more than a Ford Focus but makes a whole lot less noise. We’d be trekking through the undergrowth and without so much as a peep, suddenly a tell-tale trunk or wiggly grey bottom would appear, swaying behind a tree.

Kneeling silently on the forest floor, we observed the wild Bornean elephants. On one occasion, when I was trying my hardest to stay still and quiet, there was a sudden POP! POP! POP! sound from overhead. The elephants started trumpeting and the jungle went from silence to cacophony in a matter of moments.

An orangutan making the ‘popping’ vocalisation had blown our cover! Despite the challenges, with the help of my collaborators in Sabah, I collected over one hundred faecal samples from elephants in fragmented compared to continuous habitat.

In order to see if habitat loss has an effect on infection dynamics I compared parasite prevalence, load and diversity between elephants living in the two different sites.

I hope that this will provide insight into the links between ecosystem and animal health, the profound effects of habitat loss on endangered species survival and also inform future management decisions about habitat connectivity.

After falling head over heels in love with Asian elephants many years ago while volunteering in Thailand, I’ve since been lucky enough to have worked with them in different countries and settings.

I hope to continue my involvement in elephant conservation ‘til I’m just as wrinkly as one of them! They are such incredible creatures not only because they are simply unique, possess untold cognitive abilities, serve as seed dispersers and sculptors of the landscape and are a flagship for wildlife conservation.

They are simply incredible because once you’ve stood beside an elephant, you can’t help feeling this overwhelming sense that the world is a richer place having been graced with their presence.

I am Stephanie Hing, and I Act for Wildlife


*This project was completed as part of a MSc in Conservation Science at Imperial College London with key support from the Sabah Wildlife Department, Danau Girang Field Centre and funding assistance from the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, Chester Zoo, ZSL Erasmus Darwin Barlow Expeditions Grant and Imperial College.