The Associated Press , Bangkok | Thu, 01/15/2009 5:04 PM | WorldResearchers said Thursday they have found a surprisingly large elephant population in Malaysia's biggest national park after new survey techniques revealed a community of more than 600 animals.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Malaysia Department of Wildlife and National Parks estimated that there are 631 Asian elephants living in Taman Negara National Park in the center of peninsular Malaysia.
The survey showed Taman Negara to be "one of the great strongholds for Asian elephants in Southeast Asia," said Melvin Gumal, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's conservation programs in Malaysia.
"People were unsure of how many elephants lived in the park before our survey, although there were good reasons to think that the population was substantial," he said.
Asian elephants are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching; between 30,000 and 50,000 may remain in 13 Asian countries, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The Taman Negara protected rainforest jungle, known simply as the "Green Heart" by Malaysians, spans about 4,343 square kilometers (1,676 square miles) - roughly the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake.
"The surveys reveal the importance of Taman Negara in protecting wildlife especially those species that need large home ranges," Abdul Rasid Samsudin, the director general of Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and National Parks, said in a statement. He said the size of the population was larger than expected.
Prior to the survey, there was no figure for the park's elephant population because researchers lacked an accurate method to count animals spread throughout the dense jungle forest that are frequently on the move.
That changed with the development of a new survey method. Elephant dung piles were counted in 2006 and 2007 to estimate population size rather than trying to visually count every elephant.
Counting dung piles has become an internationally recognized technique and has been endorsed by U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Gumal said.
"There were lots of problems before with surveying elephants in rain forests," Gumal said. "It is hard to estimate the number of elephants by just looking at them because the rain forest is very lush. The elephants will find you faster than you see them."