For our tuskers

reality check
Last Updated 24 August 2015, 18:36 IST

Indian wildlife is closely entwined with the country’s ethos, culture and traditions. Of all the animals, elephants hold a particularly special place. India is believed to host over 60 per cent of the world’s wild Asian elephant population, and also has a large number in captivity. Yet, their ubiquity in reality is easily matched and possibly surpassed by the high regard elephants find in Indian consciousness.

Most popular as an embodiment of Lord Ganesha, elephants are often looked upon as symbols of power, dignity, intelligence, peace and luck. These creatures also pop out at us through art and architecture, cinema and even as logos branding our daily necessities. It is little wonder then that the Government of India has declared elephant as the country’s national heritage animal.

Closer home, elephants are the state animal of Karnataka. Ecologically speaking, Western Ghats is believed to support the highest population of Asian elephants in the world. Elephants also find representation in the State’s emblem. Despite this proximity, however, there is an increasing alienation of elephants throughout the country. While they still draw people’s respect, there is a need to check growing apathy towards the pachyderms and their habitat, particularly in the face of our zeal for development.

The factors in play

A recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Society India Programme scientists brings to fore certain critical issues in elephant conservation in India. Titled Patterns and determinants of habitat occupancy by the Asian elephant in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, India, the research by Devcharan Jathanna, K Ullas Karanth, N Samba Kumar, Krithi K Karanth and Varun R Goswami of WCS India Programme was published in PLoS One journal. The study assessed elephant distribution in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, as well as factors influencing this distribution. In other words, they mapped where elephants are found, where not, and the corresponding reasons. Understanding this is crucial as shrinking distribution is one of the greatest challenges to elephant conservation.

Once found across the entire Indian sub-continent south of the Himalayas, except in arid areas, elephants are today confined in pockets that form just about an estimated 3.5 per cent of their former range. Going by the study’s findings, elephants may actually be restricted to a far smaller area than is seemingly available for them. Of the 38,000 km2 landscape within the ambit of this study, about 17,000 km2 was deemed unsuitable as elephant habitat, due to high human-density settlements or intensive agriculture. This left 21,000 km2 as potential elephant habitat comprising forests, plantations and even uncultivated revenue department or private lands. However, the researchers found that less than 13,500 km2 was actually occupied by elephants.

Assessing factors influencing this disparity in space available and actual expanse occupied by elephants in the landscape, the researchers found ‘human disturbances’ as a predominant determinant. While it is obvious that wild elephants would avoid human-dominated areas, the study recorded that even within forest areas set aside for wildlife conservation, elephant distribution was strongly limited by human disturbances. Co-relating the frequency of livestock signs detected, they found these disturbances overwhelming and made redundant the habitat’s beneficial natural attributes, thereby negating elephant presence.

“This reiterates the sensitivity of elephants to anthropogenic pressures,” said Varun, co-author of the study. “Considering that this landscape has 10 million people, and is undergoing rapid economic growth, there is an urgent need for well thought out landscape-scale conservation plans to safeguard the interest of elephants within and outside protected areas.”

The research underscored the need for strict regulations to curb disturbances and secure this critical landscape — also a global biodiversity hotspot and UNESCO World Heritage landscape. Their study additionally provides a useful monitoring baseline to see the efficacy of implementation of these regulations in this landscape. Comparing elephant distribution established by this study, with the distribution status at some point in time in future, conservation managers will be able to say whether the status has improved or degenerated, giving a sense of efficacy of conservation interventions.

Taking elephants as indicator species to a healthy ecosystem, one will also be able to gauge the status of the landscape itself, and correlate detrimental activities to reduced elephant presence, or vice versa. One of the major strengths of this study is that it factored, for the first time, possible non-detection of elephants. This means that the survey did not classify an area as devoid of elephants just because none were detected during field work. “The probability of detecting elephants or other wildlife varies across habitats due to many reasons. If unaccounted for, this can substantially bias our understanding of elephant-habitat relationships and, thus, predicted elephant distribution,” explained Devcharan Jathanna, lead author of the study.

Essential steps

Addressing these issues, the study averts potential bias in results, and better reflects the actualities. If replicated in other elephant landscapes, such a research can help us learn more about respective elephant populations. Elephants today face immense threats for survival around the world. In India, these threats are compounded by the demand for space from an increasing human population and the country’s aspiration for development. Lack of space and resources for elephants reflects in aggravated conflicts with people. An estimated 500 people and 100 elephants’ lives are lost each year in the country, in addition to loss of property, including crops.

Moreover, elephants also face direct persecution from poachers for their tusks. Recent news on poaching that rocked Kerala is an indication of the extreme threats faced by the country’s elephants. In view of these threats, it is absolutely essential for the country to keep better track of its elephants through intensive scientific research. In the past, we may have been limited for the lack of knowledge; however, now with this precedence set, there is no reason such research and information is not generated from elsewhere too.

Handling the helm of these research, Ullas, who revolutionised global tiger monitoring, says, “Karnataka is at the forefront of applying current methodology to study and conserve wildlife,” urging the rest of the country to follow suit. “These techniques can greatly advance our understanding of the status and distribution of endangered species, including the Asian elephant, devise more effective conservation strategies, and monitor the efficacy of their implementation.”

(Published 24 August 2015, 17:03 IST)

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