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KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 16 (Reuters Life) - An internationally recognized technique of counting dung has led to the discovery of the largest-known population of endangered Asian elephants living in Southeast Asia, researchers said Friday.
By counting dung piles, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and National Parks found 631 elephants living in the Taman Negara National Park, a 4,343-square kilometer protected area in the center of Peninsular Malaysia.
"The number (of elephants) is larger than initially thought. It was a pleasant surprise," said Melvin Gumal, director of Wildlife Conservation Society's conservation programs in Malaysia.
Asian elephants are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Some 30,000 to 50,000 are believed to be living in 13 Asian countries, according to WCS.
Gumal said the dung piles were counted between 2006 and 2007.
"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.
Counting elephant dung piles to estimate population size is a scientifically proven technique that produces accurate figures.
There were no previous scientific population surveys for elephants in the park, WCS said.
Taman Negara, which contains one of the world's oldest rainforests, also supports tigers, leopards, numerous monkey species and 350 types of birds.
A similar survey, conducted in Endau Rompin, Malaysia's second-largest national park in the states of Johor and Pahang, also revealed a substantial number of elephants, though not as large as in Taman Negara, given its smaller project area.
"We have the interim results for Endau Rompin but the final report will take another 2-3 months to complete," Gumal told Reuters.
These findings are significant as they show Malaysian forests do support a substantive number of globally significant species, he said.
"The surveys reveal the importance of Taman Negara in protecting wildlife especially those species that need large home ranges," said Abdul Rasid Samsudin, the director-general of Malaysia's wildlife department.
Editing by Valerie Lee