Don’t Step in It. Swab It! (Cambodia)


Jonathan Cox, Khmer Times

Date Published


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Analyzing elephant dung has more in common with a crime scene investigation than you might think. “You swab it like in CSI,” says Jackson Frechette, referring to the popular police procedural TV show. “You swab the edge of fresh dung and hope that you get some skin cells.”

With the DNA from these skin cells, researchers plan to statistically model the number of elephants left in the Cardamom Mountains – one of the last bastions of Cambodia’s elephants. Frechette, the flagship species manager for Fauna and Flora International (FFI), said the population estimates should be finished by December.

Researchers working in open plains with large elephant populations can statistically model the number of elephants in the area by simply walking along a line and counting the number of elephants they see. Frechette and his team aren’t so lucky. In the dense forests of the Cardamoms, doing a visual count of elephants isn’t an option, so the team has to get down and dirty analyzing dung samples. “It’s a tricky operation,” he says.
Teams of 40 researchers went into a 100,000 hectare area of the Cardamom Mountains once a month between December and April, keeping their eyes down to watch for dung samples that could hold the precious skin cells necessary for DNA analysis. Last month these samples were flown for analysis to a country less well known for its elephant populations – Scotland. At the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the samples will be analyzed at a cost of as much a $70 each.
It’s not cheap, but Frechette says the population estimate is worth the high price tag. “It will give us the population size… It will give us information about the sex split, and we can also start looking at the genetic health and diversity.” Based on how many unique DNA samples are found, FFI can model the elephant population of this 6,400 square kilometer forest.
The last population survey in the Cardamoms was in 2007, and it estimated that 135 elephants were left. Despite drought and deforestation, Frechette says he is optimistic that the population will be stable.
Elephant poaching is rare in the Cardamoms because these Asian elephants have much smaller tusks than their African relatives, and because police enforcement is strict. “I would expect the elephant population to be stable, or perhaps growing,” he says.

The population analysis is supported by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Elephant Family, Los Angeles Zoo, Australia Zoo, International Elephant Foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation, Winnick Family Foundation, and other private donors.—t-step-in-it--swab-it-/