Asian elephants are a species with special significance to humans: they are an iconic, charismatic species with huge economic and religious importance. They are also a keystone species of the forest ecosystem in which they live but are currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
Myanmar has a large population of working elephants in the timber industry: using Asian elephants as draft animals negates the need to drive roads through the forest and maintain the integrity of the wild forest. Capture of elephants from the wild is contributing to the declining population size, however, and the high death and low birth rates in captivity, mean that the captive population is not currently self-sustaining, despite the incredibly good care taken of these animals by vets and their personal handler (known as mahouts or oozies).
Government vets have recorded the life of each elephant in the industry since the early 1900s through unique log books which are in the process of being digitized.
Working at day, but released in the forest at night to socialise, feed and breed, these animals are semi-captive. The log-book data allows analysis of the factors associated with variation in survival and reproductive success. New protocols for collection of data on body weight, blood and faecal samples (below) will allow us to determine aspects of disease and physiology which contribute to the life-history patterns observed.
The overall aim is to design better management programs which will enable this population to be self-sustaining, preserving the wild population. For more information, see the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project website.