A new study found that the habitat of Asian elephants has drastically declined over the centuries, with data showing a 64% loss of suitable habitat across Asia, or about 3.3 million square kilometers (3.55 million square feet).
The study, published in Scientific Reports on April 27, found that the habitat of Asian elephants in China decreased by around 94% between the 1700s and 2015. Meanwhile, Asian elephants in India have lost more than 85% during the same time period.
Despite the significant decrease, the South Asian country remains home to the third biggest habitat in Asia, as opposed to China, which is now in 8th place.
Researchers explained they analyzed data compiled from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Movebank, published literature and recordings made by authors who had direct sightings.
They also checked data logged via tracking devices and camera traps for the study.
Other countries in Southeast Asia also saw a decrease in Asian elephant habitat between the same time frame, notably Thailand (67%), Vietnam (58.6%), Indonesia (58.5%) and Myanmar (32.3%).
Considered to be “ecosystem engineers” for their extreme adaptability when it comes to living in different habitats, Asian elephants are now listed as endangered species. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there currently are less than 52,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.
Indonesia and Malaysia currently have the largest habitat for Asian elephants.
The report noted that Indonesia has around 433,774 square kilometers (4.66 million square feet), while Malaysia has about 289,423 square kilometers (3.11 million square feet) of suitable habitat as of 2015.
However, the current data pales in comparison to how massive the habitat for Asian elephants was in India in 1700. According to researchers, they estimated that the South Asian country had around 1.6 million square kilometers (17.22 million square feet) suitable habitat for the elephants during that period, while China had about 1.1 million square kilometers (11.84 square feet).
Researchers believe that several factors have contributed to the severe habitat loss of Asian elephants in the region, including climate change.
“As a result of these anthropogenic changes to climate and land-use, global forest extent is estimated to have been reduced by 32% relative to the pre-industrial period and ecological communities are estimated to have lost over 20% of their biodiversity,” the study noted.
Shermin de Silva, the founder of nonprofit Trunks & Leaves, told ABC News that the industrial agriculture in the mid-20th century have also contributed to the elephants’ habitat loss.
“These landscapes that were previously appropriate for elephants … we lost nearly two thirds of them over this past 300-year period,” De Silva said. “And what we have today is highly fragmented.”
Despite the severe drop in suitable areas for Asian elephants, researchers discovered that two nations recorded an increase in habitats for the elephants during the period.
Laos saw a 7.3% increase in its suitable area in 2015 to around 177,558 square kilometers (1.9 million square feet) and Malaysia had a 61.6% increase.