Tonkyn helps uncover elephant-poaching crisis in Myanmar

David Tonkyn's doctoral student, Christie Sampson, stands with a rare royal white elephant in Myanmar.

Dr. David Tonkyn, new chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is among a group of scientists who have discovered an elephant-poaching crisis in Myanmar. 

Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), along with Clemson University, where Tonkyn worked previously, and the Myanmar Forest Department, recently published a paper on the emerging poaching crisis there in PLOS ONE.

The researchers first discovered the crisis after fitting 19 Asian elephants in Myanmar with satellite GPS collars to conduct a telemetry study, to better understand their movements and try to reduce human-elephant conflicts.

“One of the challenges people have in developing countries is to coexist with animals such as elephants that we love from afar but which can be dangerous up close,” Tonkyn said. “Myanmar has one of the largest wild elephant populations remaining in the world. But people can lose their crops or even lives to these animals, leading to retaliatory or preventative killings of elephants in response, and perhaps a tolerance of poaching you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Christie Sampson, doctoral student at Clemson University and lead author on the paper, had intended the telemetry study of human-elephant conflict in Myanmar to be the basis of her dissertation. However, Sampson and Tonkyn, her doctoral advisor, soon made an unsettling discovery.

Seven of the 19 elephants were poached within a year of being fitted with collars. This suggests that human-elephant conflict, which was thought to be the biggest threat to Myanmar’s wild elephants, may be secondary to poaching, and that conservation efforts to help the remaining 1,400 to 2,000 wild elephants there should prioritize anti-poaching efforts.

“Poaching has suddenly become a much bigger threat to Asian elephants, especially in Myanmar, than we realized,” Sampson said. ‘”The biggest difference is that elephants in Myanmar are now being targeted for their skin and meat. That means there is no discrimination between males, females, or calves. And that could have dire consequences for elephants, who reproduce very slowly.”

Dr. David Tonkyn
Dr. David Tonkyn

Observations and discoveries from other researchers on the ground in Myanmar found further evidence of large-scale poaching. In less than two years, they confirmed that at least 19 elephants, including the seven with satellite GPS collars, were poached. And systematic surveys showed an additional 40 elephants had been poached across the south central region of the country.

Tonkyn and Sampson are particularly alarmed by the results of the study since female Asian elephants, unlike their African counterparts, have been relatively safe from poaching since only male Asian elephants have tusks.

A new market for non-ivory elephant products is on the rise. Elephant skin, fat, and feet can be used in items such as lotions, jewelry, medicine, and furniture, putting female and young elephants at risk.

Reports from the government of Myanmar show that poaching is on the rise in the country. During 2016, 25 elephants were poached. In the preceding five years, 61 elephants had been poached. Myanmar is one of the last remaining countries in Asia with large habitats capable of supporting elephant populations.

“It is urgent to let people know the scope of the problem,” Tonkyn said. “We’ve known this has been happening for years, but no one knew how big the problem has become. Female elephants only have one baby at a time, and the calf stays with the mother for five years. They are not like other animals that breed early and often. The elephant population cannot tolerate these kinds of losses, and they may not last long at this rate. I hope this study helps mobilize a response.”

The paper’s additional authors include John McEvoy, SCBI; Zaw Min Oo, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, Myanmar; Aung Myo Chit, SCBI; Aung Nyein Chan, SCBI, Colorado State University and WWF-Myanmar; Paing Soe, WWF-Myanmar; Melissa Songer, SCBI; A. Christy Williams, WWF-Myanmar; Klaus Reisinger, Compass Films; George Wittemeyer, Colorado State University; and Peter Leimgruber, SCBI.

In the upper right photo, David Tonkyn’s doctoral student, Christie Sampson, stands with a rare royal white elephant in Myanmar.

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