Chris Matheson, MP for Chester, has praised our “pioneering research” aiming to develop a vaccine for a deadly virus that is threatening the survival of Asian elephants globally.

We’ve begun a pilot study of a new vaccine to FIGHT the deadly virus which affects young elephants, EEHV.

The African elephant, now considered two separate species, is closer to extinction than ever before, a pivotal moment for earth’s largest land animal. There’s so much we can still do to save elephant populations, so where do we go from here?

On our quest to prevent the extinction of the Asian elephant, we take a closer look at what our Hi-Way herd get up to at night.

The healthy, female calf, arrived to 15-year-old mum Sundara Hi Way following a 22-month gestation, with the birth caught on our CCTV cameras.

A two-year-old Asian elephant at Chester Zoo has made a full recovery, experts believe, from the deadly virus threatening Asian elephants globally.

Human-elephant conflict was highlighted as one of the major threats to elephants in Kenya in the ‘Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Conservation and Management Strategy for Elephant in Kenya 2012-2021′.  It was this document that inspired Lydia to develop a PhD project to try and understand the impacts of land-use change on human-elephant conflict and elephant movement in the Trans Mara District, Kenya.  Lydia specifically wanted to:

  • Determine the implications of agricultural expansion on human-elephant conflict;
  • Understand the seasonal, temporal and spatial drivers of crop raiding over time;
  • Investigate elephant pathway use and their role in human-elephant conflict;
  • Understand links between farmer poverty and human-elephant conflict.

Lydia chose the Trans Mara District to carry out her research as it is an unprotected area adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve where communities are experiencing high levels of human-elephant conflict, which is impacting peoples livelihoods and threatening elephant populations.

In 2014, Lydia headed out to the Trans Mara to start collecting data.  In order to look at seasonal, temporal and spatial trends of elephant crop raiding and compare these to the past, she had to monitor and collect incidences of conflicts over 18 months.  Lydia hired and trained 12 field scouts from across the region, which was approximately 2,900 km2, to help her collect data.  Lydia tells us more below:

“Whenever there was an incident with an elephant our scouts would go and collect this data. As the scouts were embedded members of the community, farmers would alert them straight away to incidents.  The scouts would then interview the farmers about the incident, verify the amount of damage, collect a GPS coordinate and work out the type of elephant group involved.

“My research also focussed on elephant movements in the area and so I looked at natural pathways that elephants use to travel up from the Masai Mara Reserve into the Trans Mara and back down again.  The first step was to actually identify where the pathways were which we did by consulting with local farmers and rangers and verifying them by physically visiting them and looking for elephant signs. In order to understand pathway usage we installed over 38 camera traps along the pathways.  Our goal was to determine when, how often and what time of day elephants are using the pathways, and what characteristics of these pathways might be driving their movement.”

Investigating what the elephants had been eating during an elephant sign survey. Photo credit: Lydia Tiller

Assessing crop damage by elephants. Photo credit: Lydia Tiller

Another aspect of human-wildlife conflict that Lydia wanted to investigate was the link between wealth and the number of conflicts being recorded in the region.  The research team conducted a total of 326 interviews with farmers and four focus group sessions to determine what the wealth metric of the area was.

Lydia also digitised land cover in the area and ran regression models to create maps of areas particularly vulnerable to crop raiding, allowing her to generate different land-use change scenarios.  Firstly, she documented dramatic land-cover change in the area showing that between 2012 and 2015 there was a 42.5% increase in agricultural land and over 30% decline in forest area.  Lydia continues:

Lydia also found that elephants were using the pathways connecting the Masai Mara to the Trans Mara mostly at night when they had less chance of being detected by humans.  The elephant groups would travel up to the Trans Mara in the early evening and would then head to the Masai Mara in the late morning.  The key drivers of the pathway use turned out to be access to resources such as salt lakes and forest, but also to farmers’ crops, highlighting the key role that pathways play in human-elephant conflict.

Finally, Lydia found that human-elephant conflict impacts some of the poorest people in the Trans Mara because they tend to live closest to the Masai Mara National Reserve, although the very poor are relatively unaffected, presumably because they have fewer resources for elephants to target.

Lydia believes that in light of changing patterns of human-elephant conflict and land cover, land-use planning is crucial to balance the needs of humans and wildlife. The knowledge gained from this study can directly inform conservation management in this area.  Lydia explains:

 

“We now know the areas susceptible to conflict, the drivers of conflict, the role pathways play and the socio-economic context of the communities in the Trans Mara.  The knowledge of pathway use can enable us to direct mitigation methods.  For instance, we could block elephant access on certain pathways which lead directly to farms by using fences and early warning detection systems.”

Having finished her PhD recently, Lydia is now Research & Science Manager for Save the Elephant’s Human-Elephant Coexistence Program in Tsavo, Kenya.  The team there is working towards reducing damage from crop-raiding elephants by setting up beehive fences as a natural deterrent.  They also monitor and analyse the movement of 30 GPS collared elephants in Tsavo to understand their movement and crop raiding behaviour.

 

Photo credits: Lydia Tiller

Explore more Asian elephants

The newborn arrived overnight on Thursday (17/05) to 35-year-old mum Thi Hi Way after an assumed gestation of 25 months.

Keepers and scientists at the zoo believed that Thi had started a natural resorption process after hormone tracking showed that the mum of six previous calves was due to give birth three months prior, and she was slowly returning to her normal weight.

Despite the unusual circumstances, Thi gave birth to a healthy baby boy and our keepers say both mum and calf, who is yet to be named, are doing very well.

Mike Jordan, Collections Director, said:

Thi is a wonderful matriarch to our family herd and a really experienced mum. She has successfully given birth to seven calves before, but this time around circumstances were really quite astonishing.

We believed Thi had exceeded her normal gestation period, which we were monitoring closely. Her hormone levels, behaviour and drop in weight gave us every indication that she may have been resorbing the calf – a natural process that some elephants experience.

However, nature always has that incredible ability to surprise you and that was certainly the case when we came in yesterday morning. The new youngster was up on his feet, suckling from mum and bonding closely with the rest of the family herd, including one-year-old calves, Indali and Aayu. It’s truly magnificent to witness.

We are part of a breeding programme coordinated by the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) that is focused on sustaining the elephant population in Europe. The new calf is another huge boost to these efforts.Asian elephants are listed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List, threatened by habitat loss, poaching, disease and direct conflict with humans.

Tim Rowlands, Curator of Mammals, added:

It’s absolutely magical to see Thi bring another new arrival into the world. These momentous events always bring the entire elephant family together and we expect to see the other young calves in the group showing a lot of interest in the little one over the coming days, weeks and months.Crucially, this is important news for Asian elephants more widely. The species is endangered in the wild. If we don’t act now then the unthinkable could happen. By combining our breeding programme successes with field projects in the wild, we are really making a difference for these magnificent animals.

Zoo conservationists have been operating in India for more than twelve years, preventing extinction in the wild by utilising the skills and knowledge developed working with the herd in Chester. One of our major projects in Assam, northern India, has successfully eliminated conflict between local communities and the nearby Asian elephant population, offering a blueprint for the future conservation of the species.

 

Meanwhile, scientists at the zoo are leading the global fight to find a cure for a deadly disease which is threatening Asian elephants globally, in zoos and the wild. There is currently no cure for elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, also known as EEHV, but our researchers are leading the fight to produce a vaccine, thanks in part to more than £150,000 in donations from the public as part of a major Never Forget fundraising campaign.

The elephant house is open as normal.

After few years working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on various projects including turtles, wetlands and wildlife enforcement, Ee Phin realised how crucial engaging with people is to the conservation world. Ee Phin explains:

“Actually, conservation is more about managing people instead of wildlife. If you can work together with different stakeholders and gain their trust, it becomes extremely valuable for advancing conservation efforts. Each stakeholder can contribute their strength and jointly make a project a success.”

Without good collaboration, conservation may be stalled.

Ee Phin Wong, Chester Zoo Conservation Scholar
Ee Phin Wong, holding elephant poo

Chester Zoo Conservation Alumni, Ee Phin Wong

A few years ago, a new opportunity presented itself to Ee Phin: a PhD offer to work with Dr.Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, the principal investigator of a project called Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME). The Malaysian conservationist didn’t hesitate and enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and later on became a Chester Zoo Conservation Scholar.

Ee Phin continues:

“The project was very exciting because it was all about tracking wild elephants and using faecal endocrinology to study them. I thought that was really interesting because it is very difficult to track or even see wildlife in the rainforest so using GPS collars really gives us a new window to observe and follow these animals.

“Also I was really interested by the topic of faecal endocrinology because it seems to be a very diverse tool! If you learn the technique you can apply it not only to elephants but to other wildlife as well.”

During her PhD, Ee Phin looked at glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations (a class of steroid hormone) in wild Asian elephants’ dung. Glucocorticoids modulate daily levels of energy and are also involved in stress responses. She continues:

“If an accident happens out of the blur and you need to either ‘fight or flight’, the first wave of hormones will give you that adrenaline rush. Those first hormones are really quick acting hormones but glucocorticoids are released in a second wave of hormones a few minutes later and its effect on the body lasts longer. It is easier to study glucocorticoids in faecal as its molecules are more stable thanks to its cholesterol ring.

“Translocation is very relevant in Malaysia as lots of large areas are being converted to plantations and elephants are pushed away further and further. Villagers and plantation owners are not willing to tolerate the losses caused by elephants, and they pressured the authorities to translocate the elephants.”

Ee Phin working in the lab

Photo credit: Ee Phin Wong

Before 1970s, elephants in Malaysia were considered agricultural pests and were often killed. The situation shifted in 1974 when the country signed a new Wildlife Act protecting the iconic species and the Wildlife Department created an Elephant Capture Unit.

“Instead of culling the troubled elephants, the Unit started capturing them and transported them out to release them in large forests. It has been estimated that a few hundred elephants have been captured and moved so translocation could potentially have a large impact on the wild population.

“Assessing the impact that those translocations have on the species is essential but elephants are hard to track in the rainforest so gathering data is challenging. That’s why MEME decided to focus on Malaysian elephants and managed to raise enough funds to buy 50 GPS collars to enable the team to track the pachyderms in the forest.

“Sometimes if they don’t move they might be just few feet away and you wouldn’t know they are there. It’s very surprising but in the forest the elephants, even though they are so big, can move quietly or hide if they want to!

“Having the opportunity to deploy GPS collars on the translocated elephants opened a window to follow the elephants and collect their dung. However, once collected the remaining challenge was to know how long the hormone metabolites would stay stable.

Most people recommend to collect samples as soon as possible, potentially right after the elephant defecates, but that’s not possible for me because these are wild animals and they can be dangerous.”

This is why Ee Phin decided to carry out research to determine how stable the glucocorticoid metabolites in dung over time are and in different environment conditions. Collecting 80 samples of fresh dung within housed elephants and assessing their hormone levels straight away, the Malaysian researcher then measured hormone metabolites in those same dung piles within 30 minutes to two days after excretion.

Ee Phin explains:

“I found that the hormone metabolite concentrations are stable up to eight hours after defecation. After that it can go up or down but most of the hormone metabolites will increase. This unique investigation also assessed the impact of a contrasted environment to see how the rainforest conditions could impact on the metabolite levels.

“For me the biggest output I shared with the scientific community is that basically we have to be aware of time, otherwise we might interpret our data in a wrong way. Validation experiments are very important when studying faecal endocrinology, to ensure we are interpreting the right data and not some artefact of the environment.”

Ee Phin working in the field

Ee Phin collecting fecal samples. Credit: Ee Phin Wong
This video was captured as part of the study. Credit: MEME

As part of her PhD, Ee Phin also assessed the differences in hormone levels in translocated elephants and in non-translocated elephants. Since finishing her PhD, she has continued her research in Malaysia and she is now working as a lecturer in the newly opened School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences.

One of the new MEME PhD students is currently working on the movements of translocated elephants and he actually found that there is a movement difference between translocated and non-translocated elephants in terms of road crossing behaviour.

Ee Phin concludes:

My next step is to link my hormone study with this movement study to actually get a stronger support for us saying that translocations do have an impact on the elephants’ physiology and behaviour. I’m hoping that with our studies people can start thinking at how to mitigate these physiological impacts.

For more information on Ee Phin work follow the link below: Wong, E.P., Yon, L., Purcell, R., Walker, S. L., Othman, N., Saaban, S., Campos-Arceiz, A. (2016) Concentrations of faecal glucocorticoid metabolites in Asian elephant dung are stable for up to 8j in a tropical environment. Conservation Physiology, 4(1), 1-7.

Explore more Asian elephants