Since the 1700s, lands native to the Asian Elephant have been in rapid decline; today more than 3 million square kilometers of their land has been lost. This dramatic decline has been studied for centuries and becoming more prevalently observed by the University of California San Diego. These endangered creatures natively inhabit grasslands and rainforests spanning across the continent. The research team has now discovered that from 850 to 2015, more than 64% of that original suitable land has been lost and overrun by external factors. Many include–timber extraction, deforestation, farming, and agriculture practices–cutting the average land patch 80% from 99,000 to 16,000 square kilometers. 

Another jarring discovery is the potential decline of the elephant population itself. Due to the drastic habitat decline, the remaining elephant population may live in areas that are not adequate to their necessary living conditions. Prior to the 1700s, the range of land 100 kilometers of the current range was 100% suitable for these animals, now that has declined to only 50% since 2015. This condition sets up the elephants for high contact and potential conflict with humans in those areas–which can result in illness, resource contamination, and in extreme cases—poaching.

"This study has important implications for our understanding of the history of elephant landscapes in Asia and it lays the groundwork for better understanding and modeling the potential future of elephant landscapes as well," said Professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College and study Co-Author, Philip Nyhus. 

The new found data comes from the Land-Use Harmonization (LUH) data set provided by the University of Maryland. This collected information is based on historical reconstruction data of different types of land use, such as forest, crops, pastures, and various others. They combine that environmental featured data with the corresponding current elephant locations. The team believes in order to move forward productively, they must understand and educate themselves on the evolutionary history of these lands.

The found data also supports the idea that these elephants have been pushed outside of their protected land barriers, which are insufficient for this population. Over the course of the three century period, these lands have become victim to urbanization and undergone major alterations, leading these to be the main reasons for the loss of habitat. Climate change has also been looked at as one the main reasons for the decline over the last century.

This specific study has been difficult to assess the long-term conflict and wildlife changes due to the lack of historical data records. The team argues that there is more needed work to understand the upcoming ecosystem changes and that—“the researchers caution that attempts at habitat restoration need to be guided under a reckoning of social and environmental justice for historically marginalized communities.”

"Exploring the relationship between past land management practices and the distributions of elephant ecosystems would be a useful direction for future studies from the perspectives of both ecological and social policy," stated the research team.