Some of Asia’s largest animals, including tigers and elephants, are defying 12,000 years of extinction trends by coexisting with humans, according to a study led by the University of Queensland. The researchers combed through paleontological records to compare the past distribution of Asia’s 14 largest species to their current populations in tropical forests.
Zachary Amir, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences and Ecological Cascades Lab, noted that populations of four species – tigers, Asian elephants, wild boars and clouded leopards – were increasing in places where the human infrastructure was developed.
“These results show that, under the right conditions, some large animals can live in close proximity to humans and avoid extinction,” Amir said.
“These findings challenge the narrative in some conservation circles that humans and megafauna are incompatible. Globally, there is a trend of ‘trophic degradation’, a term referring to the disproportionate loss of the world’s largest animals. Trophic downgrading is generally worse near humans as hunters target larger species. But in the case of tigers, elephants, wild boars and clouded leopards, their Asian populations are higher than nearby humans. This may be the result of tougher anti-poaching efforts in national parks which are closer to human settlements and are more frequently visited by tourists.
The research also found that deforestation still had an effect on animals, with clouded leopard populations, in particular, experiencing steep declines in these areas.
But according to Amir, studies have shown that large animal species can live near humans in small habitats provided they are not hunted.
“Previously, there were only a few examples of large Asian species thriving in small habitats close to humans, including Mumbai, India, where leopards in an urban park preyed on stray dogs,” Mr. Amir with reference to an earlier UQ study. “Fortunately, we have discovered that more animals can co-exist with humans.”
At one of their study sites in Singapore, where poaching has been eliminated and extensive forest restoration efforts are taking place, two large animal species are once again thriving.
“Singapore has actually seen the natural return of sambar deer and wild boar, which are now commonly seen in an urban forest, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” Mr Amir said. “If we replicate these protection efforts in larger forests and other counties, we could see positive impacts all over the world. But before that happens, humans need to pull themselves together and limit poaching.
While there are positive results, UQ’s Dr Matthew Luskin said the study also noted a steep decline in tapirs, Sumatran rhinos, sun bears, guar and other large animals. .
“The main innovation of this work was to systematically investigate the population trends of many different wildlife species in the region,” said Dr Luskin.
“Next, we tested whether all species showed consistent trends and whether similar parks maintained similar species. Remarkably, we discovered that no forest today has the same group of wild animals as it did thousands of years ago.
Dr Luskin said the research offered an opportunity to shape the future of nature.
“These results give hope for wildlife in forests previously considered too degraded or too close to cities,” he said. “Now we are exploring new conservation strategies for these surprising places.”
Reference: “Megafauna Extinctions Produce Idiosyncratic Anthropocene Assemblages” by Zachary Amir, Jonathan H. Moore, Pablo Jose Negret, and Matthew Scott Luskin, October 21, 2022, Scientists progress.
The study was funded by the Smithsonian Institution’s ForestGEO program, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and the National Geographic Society.
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