Ensuring connectivity for the Asian elephant

Elephant Family is helping to fund the creation of an Asian Elephant Transport Working Group aimed at addressing the connectivity and transport barriers in Asian elephant range states. We caught up with Rob Ament, Road Ecology Program Manager at the Western Transportation Institute – Montana State University and co-founder of the initiative, to find out why it is so important.

Why does the expansion of road and railway networks have an impact on Asian elephants?
An estimated 25 million kilometres of new roads (circumnavigating the globe 600 times) – mostly in developing countries – are planned between now and 2050. Add to this the expansion of new and existing rail networks and we are looking at a landscape that will be interwoven with major hazards that will have a detrimental impact on a migratory species such as the Asian elephant.

This rapidly expanding transport infrastructure is a direct threat to elephant movement and mortality with railways already accounting for a significant percentage of elephant deaths across Asia.

How can the Asian Elephant Transport Working Group that Elephant Family is helping to fund help lessen the impact?
The creation of this group of experts will help focus more closely on the needs of Asian elephants as we try to help soften the impacts of expanding roads and rails throughout their habitats. Working together, we aim to inform and influence transport agencies and decision makers to develop more elephant-friendly transport systems, either by retro-fitting existing roads and rails or by mitigating new or expanding infrastructure where it creates conflict with Asian elephants.  There is an additional benefit in that what is good for elephants will also be good for other species too.

Where is your first study focussed?
Working with Assamese NGO, Aaranyak, we are conducting a joint study of a national highway – NH37 – which is projected to expand from two lanes to four. The highway forms the southern border of the high-profile and ecologically important Kaziranga National Park in the north east of India, which is home not only to important populations of Asian elephants but rhinos and tigers as well.

We hope that this work will serve as an exemplary study on how to evaluate and recommend wildlife mitigation for elephants (and tigers and rhinos) before a highway is designed. Because of the high-profile location in an elephant range state the methodology created here will hopefully have a better chance of being replicated in other key elephant landscapes and countries.

Have you been asked to conduct any other studies?
Civil engineers in Malaysia have asked us to conduct a road ecology workshop for them in Kuala Lumpur in April 2019. This will help their profession advance their considerations for elephant conservation and give them the tools to do so.

What are the overall objectives of the Asian Elephant Transport Working Group?
We aim to be a source of support, case studies, expertise and technical information to help Asian elephant conservationists influence large international financial institutions, transportation agencies and governments that make decisions on whether to deploy wildlife mitigation measures.

Where are experts being drawn from?
Giving presentations at transport conferences around the world has helped recruit government transport agency employees, for example at a talk in the Netherlands engineers from Myanmar and Thailand joined the working group. Getting ecologists and engineers to jointly engage and find common cause is a key strategy of the project.

We have a joint working group with the IUCN’s Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group (which has over 800 members) and have recruited twelve specialists to-date who are working to implement the group’s Terms of Reference.

What are the main deliverables and next steps for the group?
We are currently:

– Developing Guidance for Best Practices for roads and railways to protect Asian elephants

– Completing the Areas of Connectivity Conservation Guidance Document so that governments and experts can be consulted

– Compiling all known existing road and rail mitigation measures that have been implemented for Asian elephants across their range states (of which there are few)

– Writing up and sharing Case Studies of any exemplary Asian elephant mitigation projects like the new wildlife crossings on Highway 304 in Thailand that help elephants in the Dong Phrayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex World Heritage site.

– Creating a website for educational purposes

– Conducting transport ecology workshops in Malaysia and India (and more if requested and we can adequately resource them)

– Writing the Guidance document for Transport Mitigation for Wildlife to publish in the IUCN* technical series

We are also building our capacity so that we can be fully engaged across the 13 range states.

Photo: Annette Bonnier

How many elephants might directly, or indirectly, benefit from this work?

In Kaziranga, when our work on NH37 is complete, 1000 + elephants will benefit. Elsewhere, wherever highways and railways receive mitigation measures, thousands of wild elephants will benefit. Indirectly, as we build support for mitigation of roads and rails, many elephant populations through the 13 range states will benefit.

Elephants are culturally and ecologically important and are highly visible, helping transport systems be elephant-friendly will benefit many other species. From studies in other countries, overpasses and underpasses are already used by most mammals in the landscape.

What will the wider impact be?
Many conservationists, transportation employees and related professionals in the Asian elephant range states know little about the measures that can be incorporated into road and rail design to protect wildlife. We are just beginning to educate and motivate officials, transportation planners, engineers and others that there are proven designs that significantly reduce mortality and increase habitat connectivity.

In addition, if the Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group is able to get the IUCN to adopt a new designation for wildlife corridors – Areas of Connectivity Conservation – many of Asia’s protected areas will have better management direction adjacent to, and outside their borders, effectively creating an ecological network of conservation lands. This will increase the amount of protected habitat for elephants and other species as well.

What are the consequences for Asia’s elephants if this work is not done?
With so much linear infrastructure being planned across the globe the consequences for all wildlife could be dire. For elephants specifically, railways and roads can literally slice through habitats and destroy migratory routes that they have been using for centuries which prevents them from being able to reach natural food and water sources and forcing them to seek alternatives. These ‘alternatives’ are often farmed crops which drives them into conflict with people which, we know from experience, can result in fatalities on both sides. Maintaining connectivity is vital for the protection of the species and of people.

*IUCN is the International Union for Conservation of Nature – the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.

You can help support this important work by donating here

See also our work on wildlife corridors here

Photo: Aditya Panda
Photo: Aditya Panda

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