Emma Hankinson

Thesis title: Megafauna Extinction on our watch: Conserving Sumatra’s last remaining elephant populations and their tropical forests

Start year: 2019

Contact: 19039459@brookes.ac.uk

Supervisor(s): Dr Susan Cheyne, Professor Anna Nekaris, Professor Vincent Nijman

Research topic

Tropical rainforests are one of the most fundamental ecosystems on earth and home to over half of the world's floral and faunal species. Indonesia possesses the third most extensive tropical rainforest in the world however, tropical rainforest loss in Indonesia contributes to the highest annual deforestation amongst tropical countries. Over the past 70 years, Sumatra has experienced one of the greatest losses of any tropical rainforest. The largest and most sustainable remaining tropical forest is the Leuser Ecosystem located in north Sumatra and Aceh measuring 2.6Mha. This area is now the last place on earth that the critically endangered and endemic Sumatran orangutan (pongo abeli), Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris), Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) still exist together. The rich diversity of Sumatra (as well as biodiversity globally) is facing a major extinction crisis, with numerous species now listed as critically endangered due to their disappearance from many of Sumatra’s provinces, including the Critically endangered Sumatran elephant.

Until the 1930’s, the Sumatran elephant was thought to inhabit the entire country with a continuous distribution from north to south. In one generation (between 1985-2008), over 69% of potential elephant habitat was lost and up to 50% of the island’s elephants. Much of the remaining forest now remains in blocks of less than 250km2, too small to contain viable elephant populations. The population estimate now stands at ~1724 individuals. Despite this, up to date information on the distribution and population size of Sumatran elephants is lacking for many remaining populations, especially in the north of the country.

To prevent the extinction of the Sumatran elephant and their tropical forest habitat, the most important steps are;

  1. reduce deforestation in elephant habitat to provide adequate areas required for their survival
  2. allow them to fulfil their ecological role in viable populations
  3. halt illegal killing of elephants

To achieve these goals, governments need to produce policies to protect elephants and put these into practice. Up to date information on the availability of elephant habitat and connectivity, and the distribution of Sumatra’s last remaining elephants will be essential for effective conservation planning. Identifying areas of high-level conflict and reducing illegal activities within these areas are of crucial importance to mitigate conflict and therefore decrease illegal killings. My project aims to contribute some fundamental knowledge on these issues, to help towards securing a future for these globally important species.


Sumatran Elephant, Rainforest, Human-wildlife-conflict, Welfare, Dung DNA sampling

General research interests

Rainforest protection and conservation, Human Elephant Conflict, Captive Elephant Welfare, Elephant population estimates

Academic school / department

School of Law and Social Sciences


  • Influences of Forest Structure on the densities of two sympatric Hylobatids; Symphalangus syndactylus and Hylobates lar in a Sumatran Lowland Rainforest, Indonesia. (In process). Emma Hankinson, Christopher Marsh, Ross Hill, Matt Nowak, Nursahara Pasaribu, Abdullah Abdullah, Amanda Korstjens.
  • Sympatric gibbons in historically logged forest in north Sumatra, Indonesia. In; The State of the Gibbons: Updates on Small Ape Conservation and Research. (In process).
  • Ellesse Janda, Emma Hankinson, David Walker & Stefano Vaglio. 2018. Scent-marking behaviour signals sex, female rank and age in captive red-ruffed lemurs. American Journal of Primatology, 81 (1), 60-68.
  • Cici Alexander, Amanda Korstjens, Emma Hankinson, Graham Usher, Nathan Harrison, Matthew Nowak, Abdullah Abdullah, Serge A. Wich & Ross Hill. 2018. Locating emergent trees in a tropical rainforest using data from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation. 72, 86-90.
  • Zeno Wijtten, Emma Hankinson, Timothy Pellissier, Matthew Nuttall & Richard Lemarkat. 2012. Activity Budgets of Peters ’ Angola Black-and-white Colobus (Colobus angolensis palliatus) in an East African Coastal Forest. African Primates, 7 (2), 203-210.

Work in progress

  • Captive Elephant welfare in Conservation Response Units (CRU’s) across Sumatra
  • Human Elephant Conflict: Perceptions of local farmers towards elephants, conservation and mitigation methods.
  • Human Elephant Conflict across Asia: A review of techniques used in combating conflict.
  • Population and distribution of Thomas Langurs within a degraded forest habitat, North Sumatra.

Further details

Academic and professional training

  • Masters by Research: Landscape Ecology and Primatology 2015-2017. Project titled ‘Spatial Distribution of two Hylobatidae species in relation to canopy structure and disturbance in a Sumatran lowland dipterocarp forest’. Methodology included; vegetational sampling of rainforest trees, gibbon audio recording using triangulation, experience of field work in Indonesia.
  • MSc Animal Behaviour 2003-2005. Subjects studied: Methodologies in Animal Behaviour, Behavioural and Ecological Research Skills, Zoo Biology and Captive Management, Advanced Statistics and Ecological Modelling. Thesis ‘The effects of maternal deprivation, isolation and social recovery on a group of sanctuary chimpanzees. Sweetwater’s game reserve, Kenya. Methods included behavioural studies of great apes.
  • BSc Zoology (hons) 2:1. 1998-2001. Subjects studied: Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation, Evolution, Mechanisms of Animal Behaviour, Primate Behaviour, Brain and Behaviour, Experimental Design and Statistics for Biologists, Field and Identification Skills. Thesis‘Comparison of cooperative breeding societies; cotton top tamarins and meerkats’ Chester Zoological Society.