House for Single Mothers

Project location: ITALY, Civitavecchia
Project start date: January 2005 - Project end date: This project covers various years
Project number: 2005-34
Beneficiary: IL PONTE


Project goals:

(1)   To develop a large individual-based dataset covering the full life-history of succeeding generations of captive timber elephants born or captured between 1942 and 2012 in Myanmar, by using the elephant log books and annual extraction reports archived and maintained for each elephant in the country by the Extraction Department, Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE).

(2)   To train local veterinarians, scientists and authorities in Myanmar to further develop and utilize the unique resource they behold in their elephant logbooks.

Detailed description of the activities implemented and of the methodologies applied during the final implementation period (2012)

1. Data collection: The database compiled with the funding from the Nando Peretti Foundation now contains the most comprehensive and detailed record of demographic data available for any elephant population in the world, with a sample size of >9000 individuals. Given the current declines in captive and wild Asian elephants, it is extremely unlikely that the data amassed within this database could ever be replaced or bettered. The research team have distributed laptops, cameras, printer and scanner to MTE veterinarians to enable electronic recording of births, deaths and other events normally recorded in the elephant logbooks only (that may be lost after death). During the final implementation period, Dr Lummaa’s team has continued using these electronic records to supplement their –pre-existing logbook database with births and deaths taking place since 2000, as well as to fill in missing data and to correct errors in the existing database. By the end of 2012, they successfully added records of 240 adults, 300+ calves, and 100 mortality/deaths data. As detailed in the original proposed, these data offer a unique opportunity to compare those elephants captured from the wild with documented early stress effects and captive-borns not affected directly by capture stress, to investigate the long-term effects of human-induced stress on elephant survival and reproduction. Determining how the reproductive and mortality patterns are influenced by underlying differences in hormonal profiles has major implications for our understanding of evolution, animal welfare and conservation, pressure to capture more elephants from the wild as well as the economic implications for elephant owners. Thus, Dr Lummaa’s team has also supplemented the log-book records with longitudinal analysis of stress-hormone levels in 100 elephants, to achieve these goals.

2. Conferences: The project has funded in 2012 3 Myanmar vets to attend Symposium of the Asian Society of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine held on October 10-14, 2012 in Thailand. This is a rare opportunity for Myanmar vets to access up-to-date knowledge without going to accredited Institutions in the West.                      

3.  Training workshops: The research team led by Dr Lummaa successfully held a workshop in Taungoo, Myanmar on 19-25 November, 2012 for 25 Myanmar Veterinarians working with elephants from each district in the country to provide them a unique opportunity for intensive training by international experts, to make them abreast with updated knowledge on a range of topics including: Utilization of  the unique resource they behold in their elephant logbooks; Emerging elephant diseases; Parasitology, deworming and vaccination programs for zoo elephants; Anatomy and physiology review; Elephant breeding research in Chaing Mai Veterinary Faculty; The use of ultrasound in assessing reproductive health in elephants; Bull management and semen collection; Hematology and clinical pathology; Diagnostic and laboratory methods for elephants in the field. This training was conducted by veterinarians and biologists from leading international institutions (e.g. Prof. Janine Brown of Smithsonian Institute, Prof. Susan Mikota of Elephant Care International, Prof Chatchote Thitaram of Chaing Mai Veterinary Faculty, Prof Nikorn Thorntip of Kesetsart University (Thailand), Dr. Luis Padilla of Saint Louis Zoo (USA) and also involved consultancy from Chaing Mai University on endocrinology. 

The training further resulted in written recommendations provided by Prof Mikota, Brown and Padilla circulated to Myanmar Timber Enterprise and the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry concerning control and management of tuberculosis and elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus in the Myanmar timber elephants, and general welfare of the population.

These activities aimed at improving the welfare and breeding success of the working elephants whilst protecting the remaining endangered wild population in the country.

Results obtained

The results obtained from the data collected have thus far provided the first evidence from a long-lived mammal of age-specific fitness declines in females that are driven by age-specific associations between fitness components. Reproduction and survival are positive associated in early life of females, but negatively in later life with up to 71% of later-life survival declines associated with investing in the production of offspring (published in 2012 in Ecology Letters). The team has used the records to further investigate how survival and reproduction are affected by ecological variation such as current climate (in press in Ecology) or conditions during early development (in review in J Anim Ecol), or heavy investments in early reproduction (in review in Funct Ecol). They have shown how maternal age among other factors affects stillbirth and calf mortality risk typically high in elephants (published in 2012 in Plos ONE), and how maternal and grandmaternal death influences calf survival across ages (in prep). They have also investigated the short and long-term consequences of capture from the wild on survival and reproductive success in captivity (in prep), as well as on growth and stress hormone levels. Initial results highlight a large between-individual variation in stress hormone levels, calling for further investigation of the underlying causes. In addition to this between-individual variation, the average faecal cortisol concentration rose significantly from Dec (cool season) to that in March (hot, dry season, while body weight reduced significantly.

The results have already provided opportunities to affect policy-making, as evidenced by meetings of Dr Lummaa and Dr Mar in Myanmar in April and November 2012 to disseminate the research findings to the Union Minister for Environmental Conservation and Forestry and Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries and to the Myanmar Timber Enterprise representatives and veterinary faculty of the Yezin University that trains the elephant-specialised veterinarians working with the captive elephant population in Myanmar.

Public outreach: The team has further increased the awareness of the public and academic community about their research by demonstrating in University Open Days and taking actively part in scientific conferences (~10 presentations during this grant period). Mostly Movies, a British award-winning production company is currently preparing a full length documentary on the project, and are currently preparing a 10 minute summary of the training workshop held in Taungoo in Nov 2012.

Resulting publications so far (several more in preparation):

Mar KU, Lahdenperä M & Lummaa V 2012 Causes and correlates of calf mortality in semi-captive Asian elephants (Elaphas maximus). PLOS One 7 (3): e32335.

Mar KU, Hayward AD, Lahdenperä M & Lummaa V 2013 Early reproductive investment, senescence and lifetime reproductive success in female Asian elephants. Functional Ecology, submitted.

Mumby HS, Courtiol A, Mar KU & Lummaa V 2013 Climatic variation and age-specific survival in Asian elephants from Myanmar. Ecology, in press. Media coverage e.g. in ScienceDaily, Conservation Magazine, Futurity, Red Orbit, NERC magazine.

Mumby HS, Courtiol A, Mar KU & Lummaa V 2013 Birth season in Asian elephants reflects seasonal workload but does not predict mortality. Journal of Animal Ecology, submitted.

Robinson MR, Mar KU & Lummaa V 2012 Senescence and age-specific trade-offs between reproduction and survival in female Asian elephants. Ecology Letters, 15:260–266.


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