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Asian Elephant Habitat Decreased Majorly Over Past Centuries

This article is published in collaboration with Statista

by Katharina Buchholz

The habitat of the Asian elephant has shrunk to just one third of its original size over the course of roughly the past three centuries, new research published in Nature magazine has found. Most affected - even in relative terms - were the Asian continent's two biggest nations, India and China. In the latter country, now only boasting the 8th largest habitat for the species, almost 95 percent of all habitat that existed in the year 1700 was lost.

Despite having lost more than 85 percent of suitable area, India continues to be home to the third-biggest elephant habitat in Asia. Considering that the biggest habitats at the present moment, Indonesia and Malaysia, lost much less or even gained suitable elephant habitat shows how overwhelmingly big India's habitat used to be. The study places the number at more than 1.6 million km2 in 1700, ahead of China's then 1.1 million km2.

Malaysia and Laos were the two countries in the region where elephant habitat grew. Especially in the Malaysian part of the island Borneo, suitable habitat increased majorly. The same can't be said of the Indonesian part of Borneo as well as neighboring Indonesian island Sumatra. Together, they currently form the biggest Asian elephant habitat as of now, but loss was also progressing swiftly there.

Changes in land use, for example the spread of agriculture, as well as deforestation contributed to the loss of habitat for the Asian elephant, which is now considered endangered. The study also found that present-day elephant populations do not necessarily live in the most suitable habitats and that the best habitats do not necessarily sustain the biggest herds. Ways to traverse between habitats are however limited in today's world. All of these factors can lead to conflict between humans and elephants, according to the scientists, as humans increasingly encroach on elephants' domain while animals driven from their home venture out looking for new places to live - like examplified by the 2021 trek of elephants across China. The 500km-long journey the animals took stunned the world, but is better understood in light of conservation and habitat woes.

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