23 October 2017

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.