Award Winner (Project 3)

Sai Yok National Park, Thailand

Saving Gentle Giants: Habitat risk mapping for wild elephants

Partners: The Asian Institute of Technology and Airbus Foundation 

Key Species: Asian elephant, leopard, jackal, barking deer and marbled cat

2023 Award Winner 

In the picturesque Sai Yok National Park in Thailand lies a hidden crisis. The wild elephants of Thailand - a majestic and iconic species - have seen their numbers dwindle to a mere 3,500 due to illegal poaching and habitat loss.

The situation is being exacerbated by increasing human pressure. As the majority of the local population relies on agriculture for their livelihood, the expansion of farmland, combined with the fuelwood demand, has led to rapid deforestation and fragmentation of the elephants' habitat. Their bamboo bushes - an essential food source for elephants - are being displaced with commercial fast-growing species like eucalyptus and teak. As a result, human-elephant conflicts have become commonplace in the region. 

Conserving the gentle giants: Using high-resolution satellite data

To address the pressing need for conservation efforts, a team of experts at the Asian Institute of Technology has initiated a project to map the wild elephant habitat in Sai Yok. The project will make use of high-resolution data and advanced machine-learning algorithms to classify landscape features between 2012 and 2022. In addition, the team will develop a habitat quality assessment model, which will aid in predicting future habitat quality in the Sai Yok reserve. The ultimate aim is to provide policy recommendations to stakeholders and governmental agencies on sustainable management practices to ensure the long-term preservation of the environment.

The team will use 50 cm Pléiades satellite data, donated by Airbus Foundation, to assess habitat loss in the Sai Yok reserve forest between 2012 and 2022. By comparing high-resolution satellite images taken over the last 10 years, they will identify the extent of ecosystem degradation, determine the impact of invasive species like eucalyptus on the elephants' food sources and detect changes in the landscape over time.

Armed with this information, the researchers, including Dr Indrajit Pal, Jyoti Prakash Hati, Satya V.S.A.B. Ganni, Nilay Pramanick, Rituparna Acharyya, Anushree Pal and Anil Kumar will develop a habitat map for the wild elephants, highlighting the areas most at risk, predicting future changes based on trends over time and identifying opportunities for conservation and sustainable management.

The use of this imagery will help shed light on the human-induced changes that have adversely affected the elephants' natural habitat, which the researchers aim to provide valuable insights for policymakers and stakeholders to devise effective conservation laws and a sustainable management plan that facilitates coexistence between humans and nature.

Developing recommendations for sustainable elephant conservation and management

This project will serve as a fundamental baseline for creating an advanced information repository for administrators, policymakers and future researchers. While the initial conservation actions may involve measures such as removing invasive plant species, replanting bamboo, enforcing laws to prevent the cultivation of foreign species, and promoting eco-friendly tourism infrastructure, the study's findings could also reveal other promising solutions.

The outcomes of this project hold huge potential to raise awareness of the issues and bring change for both the elephants and the residents of Sai Yok National Park. By protecting this biodiversity hotspot, it could also help bolster the declining habitat of leopards, jackals and the endangered barking deer and marbled cat and ensure that the gentle giants of Sai Yok National Park have a safe future in the forest.

Sai Yok National Park
Dr Anirban Mukhopadhyay (1) (1)
Dr Anirban Mukhopadhyay (1)

These high-resolution satellite images will create a detailed, shared knowledge base on important issues for a wide range of local conservation partners, providing more accuracy and comprehensiveness than ever before

Dr. Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Asian Institute of Technology

Species factfile

Asian elephants

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are the largest land animals in Asia and one of three species of elephants in the world. They are highly-intelligent and social animals, living in matriarchal groups led by a dominant female. 

From the lush tropical and subtropical forests to the vast grasslands, to the mountainous regions of Asia, the Asian elephant has made its mark on the landscape. With a historical range that spanned from Syria to China, and from the Russian Far East to the Indonesian islands, these elephants were once an integral part of a diverse ecosystem.

Sadly, the Asian elephant is now listed as an endangered species, with only about 40,000 to 50,000 individuals remaining in the wild, due to the impact of habitat loss, poaching and human-elephant conflict. Establishing Protected Areas, reducing human-elephant conflict and promoting sustainable forestry practices are just a few of the conservation measures underway to ensure the survival of these gentle giants. 

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