Date of Award

12-2013

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Legacy Department

Biological Sciences

Advisor

Tonkyn, David

Committee Member

Leimgruber , Peter

Committee Member

DeWalt , Saara

Abstract

Grasslands habitats are hypothesized to be a critical resource for the endangered Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) throughout its range. However, this hypothesis has not been rigorously tested. My study examined elephant habitat selection in Sri Lanka to determine the importance of grassland versus other local habitats, and how livestock abundance, fire, and the invasive plant Lantana camara affect the relative abundance of elephants within habitats. My research was conducted in two protected areas in Sri Lanka, Udawalawe National Park (UNP) and Hurulu Forest Reserve (HR). I used distance-sampling on a total of 50.8 km of dung line-transects in the four habitat types and under burnt and unburnt conditions to assess relative abundance of elephant and livestock populations. I also established 197 permanent vegetation plots in UNP and HR to determine plant composition and the extent of L. camara invasion. I found that relative elephant abundance is highest in grasslands, specifically areas with Panicum maximum. I found no significant difference in the abundance of elephants in burnt vs. unburnt habitats; however, livestock abundance is greater in recently burnt areas. Livestock and elephant populations are often found in the same habitat, indicating they may be competing for food resources. I conclude that grasslands are essential habitat for Asian elephants in Sri Lanka and that stopping illegal grazing and the spread of L. camara in protected areas should be considered vital components of future conservation efforts.

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