A count of elephant dung revealed a surprisingly large endangered elephant population — more than 600 — in Malaysia's biggest national park, researchers said Thursday.
The number of endangered Asian elephants had always been a mystery as researchers tried to visually count every one of the frequently shifting crowd in the dense jungle.
But the new method of counting dung piles came up with an estimate of 631 animals living in Taman Negara National Park, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Malaysia Department of Wildlife and National Parks said.
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.
The protected rain forest jungle, known simply as the "Green Heart" by Malaysians, spans about 1,676 square miles — roughly the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake.
The space is crucial. 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 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.
Before the new count, researchers thought the Taman Negara elephant population was substantial, Gumal said. But the old counting method was a problem.
"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," Gumal said.
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.
The dung piles in Taman Negara were counted in 2006 and 2007.