College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences

Clemson elephant research offers new perspective on wildlife conservation


A study published by Clemson University faculty on conflicts between humans and elephants in Myanmar is providing a new window into how wildlife management is viewed for other species, as well.

Led by Christie Sampson, adjunct faculty at Clemson and post-doctoral scholar at the University of Calgary, and Clemson Associate Professor of Human Dimensions of Wildlife Shari Rodriguez, the peer-reviewed research article was published in PLOS ONE and sought to quantitatively assess the indirect impacts of human-elephant conflict.

The concept for the research began one morning in a village in Myanmar as Sampson prepared to head out for the day and fit elephants with — massive — GPS collars.

“Usually, the local kids are gone by the time we get started; usually they are off going to school … but that morning the village chief at whose house we were staying said that none of the kids could go to school because there was an elephant in the area, and it’s just too dangerous to let them go on those days,” Sampson said. “So, I started thinking about those kinds of opportunity costs and how it impacts children’s education, people’s abilities to go other places — people weren’t traveling that day, they weren’t going into the forest to collect food … people who live there have to change their entire lives and basically work around the elephants’ schedule.”

A young girl stands in front of the house where her family lives, which is primarily comprised of a sleeping platform built over the pen where their water buffalo that protects the livestock from elephants is kept.

While direct impacts such as death, attacks and property or crop damage are relatively simple to measure, indirect impacts and how they shape conservation attitudes have not been widely investigated.

“When it comes to indirect impacts, they are often not even associated with human-wildlife conflicts,” said Rodriguez, faculty in Clemson’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation. “An example would be when people experience trauma from these conflicts and they have PTSD. Say, if as a child you had a family experience with an elephant, the manifestation of that trauma may not even show up until years later and the realization of the connection between them may not ever be made.”

In turn, while qualitative assessments — rooted in the themes that emerge through what is said by informants rather how many of them say it (quantitative) — have been carried out, Sampson said this was the first known quantitative assessment of any indirect impacts with human-wildlife conflict species.

“We wanted to look at the different types of indirect impacts and, basically, see how they affected one another,” she said. “There are other qualitative projects that have been done before this, and we cited many of them in our paper. But they are more focal, so the researchers go out and talk to eight to 10 people in a village and have a very in-depth conversation. But that doesn’t give you an overview of the entire landscape, and that’s what we were really going for.”

Members of a team from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study elephants.
Members of a team from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ride elephants, as part of their work with veterinarians and wildlife officers from the Myanmar government and the mahouts, who are the people who care for, train and work alongside the captive elephants.

Since a quantitative study requires a much broader dataset, the research team conducted an interview survey of 381 participants in two rural areas in Myanmar, the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, where communities were exposed to human-elephant conflict.

The study found that 99% of participants suffered from some type of indirect impact from these conflicts, including fear for personal and family safety from elephants and fear that elephants will destroy their home.

But among the most significant takeaways from the study was that despite experiencing these significant indirect impacts from human-elephant conflict at the community level, those who participated in the study were still supportive of future elephant conservation programs.

Sampson said that assessing the array of indirect impacts associated with wildlife-human conflicts is critical for understanding the true impacts of the conflict; without it, it’s unlikely that the conflict and the impacts can be mitigated through effective management or policy, and both humans and wildlife will suffer.

“It’s also a lot easier to work into management strategies and to talk to officials about,” she said. “Because if you tell a wildlife officer that one person has died because of this conflict, it might not spur anybody into action. But if you can say that this number of people have died, this many people have suffered economically, that the children are now afraid to go out and that it is taking a toll on the whole community, then we can quantitate those impacts and look at them across a larger area — none of that is captured when you look at a statistic that says 1 percent was injured or 1 percent was killed.”

Because the desire to protect elephants remains, the research sought to give wildlife conservation and human-welfare agencies data that can help them find ways to provide the means for improved coexistence.

An elephant in Myanmar wades in the water.

Along with mitigation strategies aimed at reducing human-elephant conflict in general, the research article offered solutions that may alleviate the indirect impacts, including: increased access to medical, including psychological, services for families affected by human-elephant conflict; efforts targeted at improving the quality of life for children in rural communities, including access to school during times when elephants are present; and subsidized construction materials and agricultural supplies to repair homes and replant crops.

Rodriguez said understanding the indirect impacts at hand was a severely understudied area of human-wildlife conflicts, and the model that was developed in the research could be applied to any human-wildlife situation and aid in the development of these strategies.

“We set out to put together a comprehensive questionnaire that had different parts depending on the experience of the study participant, and that led us down this path,” Rodriguez said. “This paper is the culmination of years of work together. We’ve got another paper from (Clemson undergrad and master’s alum in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology) Diane Dotson from her research on tigers on the same topic. The cool thing about this is that it can be applied to any species. We’re already planning to do some of this indirect impact research with jaguars in South America.”

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