In 2014, George Wittemyer and colleagues published an article in PNAS highlighting that the illegal wildlife trade has reached alarming levels, with ~40,000 elephants killed annually for their ivory. These results, however, focused entirely on African elephant populations, with no reference to Asian elephants – the lesser known and perhaps more difficult to study species.
Research being conducted by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) scientists, however, is revealing that poaching for Asian elephants could be just as high, if not higher, than their African cousins. These results were revealed from a related GPS collaring study to investigate human-elephant conflict in which 7 of 19 collared elephants (37%) were poached within a year of being fitted with a collar. Concerning is that the elephants are being poached for their skin and meat, rather than their tusks (only male Asian elephants have tusks). This means that entire populations are being targeted (males, females, and their offspring). Removing breeding females and their young from the population is the quickest way to drive a species to extinction, especially given the species’ low reproductive rate. With only a few thousand wild elephants remaining in Myanmar, the data collected by these collars is providing important information to mount a conservation response. Further information on this topic, including a very nice video, can be found on the Smithsonian’s National Zoo website.