Jumbos now raid crops in bigger all-boys gang

Male Elephant Groups (Photo Courtesy Frontier Elephant Programme)

Elephants in Karnataka and parts of Tamil Nadu have learnt how to adapt to the ever-expanding presence of humans all around as they now form large all-male groups while raiding croplands in search of food.

On average, the boys-only gangs consist of 3-4 elephants, but there are groups comprising 9-12.

In the crop-growing regions of Tumakuru, Ramnagar and Krishnagiri districts, the groups are larger than those in low-risk, forested habitats.

Foraging in farmlands is always risky for the animals as they face threats like electrocution, poisoning and shooting. In India alone, nearly 150 elephants are killed each year in such man-animal conflicts.

But the male pachyderms still prefer to raid farmers’ fields in a high-risk, high-gain foraging strategy to improve their body condition and increase their reproductive success.“Such large groups give them a sense of safety and cooperation as there are adequate food in the fields,” Raman Sukumar, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and India’s foremost elephant expert, told DH.

“The females and kids tend to avoid such high-risk foraging techniques whereas the males learn over time and transmit the knowledge to the younger ones,” said Anindya Sinha, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and one of the members of the study team.

Sukumar and Sinha were part of a research group that followed elephant behaviour for more than a decade and gathered evidence of the rare behavioural changes over 23 months between February 2016 and December 2017. The other members were from the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning, Puducherry.

They followed the animals over a 10,000 sqkm area in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu including the Bannerghatta National Park, parts of Cauvery and Cauvery North Wildlife Sanctuaries as also the reserved forests of Ramanagara, Bengaluru and Hosur forest divisions.

After analysing 1,445 photographs of 248 individual male elephants collected over 23 months, they concluded that adolescent male elephants formed large bull groups when inhabiting non-forested or human-modified areas such as croplands.

“Such a social strategy adopted by male elephants may represent a specific example of more general risk-management strategies increasingly being displayed by elephant populations across their threatened habitats,” the team reported in the Scientific Reports on 
Thursday.

India is currently home to between 26,390 and 30,770 elephants that are under threat due to anthropogenic and developmental activities. “Earlier, the males were typically solitary or formed small groups. The trend began changing 15-20 years ago. Now many younger males don’t even go back to the forests and stay near farmlands or human habitation in expectation of more nutritious food,” said Sukumar.

The researchers said such a behavioural change among the jumbos could be exploited as a risk management strategy to survive in threatened habitats. Understanding the evolving characteristics of elephants living in areas with higher rates of human activity might help reduce human-elephant conflicts and prevent further loss of endangered animals, they 
said.

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