Myanmar Elephant Studbook Project

Project location: MYANMAR
Project start date: September 2009 - Project end date: August 2011
Project number: 2009-45
Beneficiary: University of Sheffield

Because collecting lifelong biodata on long-lived species is problematic, little is understood about factors modifying age-specific reproduction and survival of Asian Elephants. Yet such information is vital for conservation of this iconic, endangered species. This project will produce world's largest database on multi-generational biodata of 8000+ elephants for across-discipline research. In Myanmar, timber is traditionally extracted by ecologically-friendly cost-effective elephant draft power. By law, pedigree and life-history of working elephants is recorded in logbooks. The proposed funding will be used (1) to develop a centralized studbook databank of working elephants and (2) to train local veterinarians and authorities to further develop this unique resource.

1. Aims.
The first aim is 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 2009 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. The traditional elephant logbooks documented on individual elephants after taming are equivalent to the ‘studbooks' kept in Western zoos. State ownership of thousands of elephants over half a century makes it possible to compile and transfer data of all registered individual elephants from the log books to a database containing a chronology of a captive population, listing vital information on animal identities, sex, maternity, birth and death dates and ages. Additional information on capture methods and place, and annual rate of capture, births and deaths can be copied from departmental annual reports. The proposed database would contain the most comprehensive and detailed record of demographic data available for any elephant population in the world, and is effectively the world's largest studbook on Asian elephants. 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 data will 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, each with recorded annual workloads to investigate the long-term effects of human-induced stress on elephant survival and reproduction. Determining the reproductive and senescent profiles and how these in turn might be 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.
The second aim is to train local veterinarians, scientists and authorities in Myanmar to further develop and utilize the unique resource they behold in their elephant logbooks. The logbook material is a unique and extensive data set with an extremely valuable resource for research. Recently, data entry to elephant studbook has stopped due to the lack of leadership, and partly due to under-staff and under-resources. There is currently no funding to support capacity building in Myanmar to train local veterinarians, officers and scientists to further develop, value and utilize the resource potential embedded in the elephant logbooks. It is vitally important that this data entry should continue to unforeseeable future by vets employed in the work force, to provide up-to-date data and enhance the husbandry and welfare of today's living logging elephants. The University of Sheffield proposes to train local service personnel with data entry and equip them with laptop computers to allow data collection in the field. In Myanmar, laptops are extremely expensive and regarded as luxury items and unavailable to ordinary Myanmar Government service personnel. Personal laptops would radically motivate the local vets to computerize all data from logbooks to spreadsheet. Log books data are kept with elephants until they die. Thereafter, mahouts must hand over the logbooks to the Head Quarter in Yangon. Most logbooks are currently lost and damaged by time in the Government warehouses. With them, it is losing a unique opportunity to follow the life-events of thousands of elephants from birth to death and investigate how capture, work-stress and other factors affect reproductive and survival rates.
This project will be carried out by a team of three researchers all based in Sheffield, whose complimentary skills will ensure the project success. Dr. Virpi Lummaa is an anthropologist whose research aims at understanding the ecological causes and evolutionary consequences of variation in reproduction and longevity in humans and other animals. She is expert in collecting large, multi-generational datasets on life-history in humans, and has >40 peer-reviewed publications, including 7 in Nature, Science and PNAS. Dr. Andy Russell is an evolutionary biologist using large datasets of life-history and behavioural data in conjunction with data on hormone titres in his research on several bird and mammal species, and has 46 publications including 11 in Nature, Science & PNAS. Dr. Khyne U Mar is veterinarian and a biologist who, while working in the State-run Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) of Myanmar/Burma as Head of Veterinary Research Division, successfully attracted funding from international NGOs to set up a studbook project on Asian Elephants. She used the logbooks to transfer these data to computer spreadsheet. She arrived UK in 1999 to continue her postgraduate studies and her PhD thesis (2007) is based on studbooks of MTE elephants. The database has not been updated since 1999, missing out >500 new elephants born during the past 10 years. Dr Mar has extensive working experience in South East Asia; she was a Senior Advisor for Elephant Family's Health and Welfare Programme for captive elephants in India, which was funded by Nando Peretti Foundation 2002-08 (see

The department of Animal and Plant Sciences (APS) at the University of Sheffield is one of the largest departments in the UK devoted to the study of whole organism biology. In the latest Research Assessment Exercise in UK (RAE 2008), Biological Sciences at Sheffield was ranked 3rd in the UK cased on the proportion of 'world-leading' and 'internationally excellent' research activity (After Cancer Research Institute and Oxford Biochemistry). APS is multidisciplinary with >40 permanent academic staff members, ~50 research fellows/associates and at least 50 research students from around the world. It possesses the largest concentration of conservation biologists, behavioural ecologists and evolutionary biologists in the UK, with several groups working at the interface of research topics included in this proposal, namely: demography, ageing and life-history theory, and applied issues in ecology and conservation such as the importance of biodiversity, the provision of ecosystem services and the impacts of exploitation, disease and invasive species on populations and communities, effects of climate and atmospheric change. In teaching, APS has achieved maximum scores (24/24) in the most recent UK wide teaching quality assessment. These features place it among the best in the country and demonstrate a consistent standard of international excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The proposed project to understand impact of human induced stress on the reproductive and survival patterns of the endangered Asian elephant thus enjoys the support from the widest possible range of international renewed experts in the field and logistic support from a highly successful institution.

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