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Man Elephant Conflict: Study emphasises upon elephant individuality to prevent conflicts with human  

Monday June 09, 2014

HUMAN ELEPHANT CONFLICT, HEC, ELEPHANT BEHAVIOUR, INDIA  
 

"Aimed at addressing the dearth in understanding the behaviour of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at the scale of populations and individuals that has left important management issues, particularly related to human-elephant conflict (HEC), unresolved, a recent study focused on evaluation of differences in behaviour and decision-making among individual elephants across groups in response to changing local ecological settings.

 

Basudev Mahapatra

 
 

Elephants killed by being electrocuted, poached or by hitting running trains passing through the elephant corridor of Indian state of Odisha has not only been a concern of wildlife lovers and activists, but it also is an indication of growing conflict between man and the jumbo animal in the wild.

Statistics show that over 150 elephants have been killed in different parts of Odisha in last seven years, of which over 70 elephants have been electrocuted and at least six elephants have died of hitting trains passing through the elephant movement corridor. What it indicates is that the mammoth animal is in great danger in the wild as well as the human habitats in the periphery. It’s not the elephants only, but many human beings have also been victims of the growing man - animal conflict.

 

This is the state of Man-Elephant conflict in the state of Odisha. However, the conflict is not limited to the state of Odisha only but the conflict is there across the elephant corridor spanning from the terrains of Assam in the north eastern part of India to the southernmost provinces like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The conflict between man and the elephants is prominent in places where development activities have encroached into the forests that are parts of the elephant corridor. There is also poaching activities not only in the elephant dwellings but, even, in national parks and reserves.

India has approximately 50% of the total population of wild Asian elephants (20,000 to 25,000), with southern India supporting around 10,000 elephants in the wild. Owing largely to the pressures of hunting as well as habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, the geographic range of the Asian elephant has, however, declined by more than 70% since the 1960s. The surviving populations are highly fragmented and the species is listed as Endangered in the 2011 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is also included in the Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 43) and in the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of India 1972.

Aimed at addressing the dearth in understanding the behaviour of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at the scale of populations and individuals that has left important management issues, particularly related to human-elephant conflict (HEC), unresolved, the recent study focused on evaluation of differences in behaviour and decision-making among individual elephants across groups in response to changing local ecological settings.

Conducted by scholars like Nishant M. Srinivasaiah of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Vijay D. Anand of A Rocha India, Srinivas Vaidyanathan of Foundation for Ecological Research and Anindya Sinha of Nature Conservation Foundation, the study is an outcome of extensive behavioural observations on 60 individually identified elephants and a 184-km2 grid-based survey of their natural and anthropogenic habitats within and outside the Bannerghatta National Park in the southern part of India during the dry season.

“Systematic changes in behavioural patterns in response to predictable variation in the environment such as resource availability, including those that may occur seasonally, could be innate and selected for. For example, behavioural responses encompassed by varying time-activity budgets, spatial and temporal preferences for certain habitats or the avoidance of areas in response to certain ecological parameters have been documented extensively. Such responses may often be determined by relatively more biologically determined factors such as the gender, age or the typical social organization of the species concerned. What might be more problematic for animals, however, are the demands placed on them by short-term, unpredictable ecological changes in their environment, a classic example being of animal populations that largely occur in increasingly human-dominated landscapes. This might be more challenging for large-bodied mammalian species such as the elephant that lives in complex societies but which may be able to cope with rapid environmental changes with their learning capacities and sophisticated cognitive decision-making abilities,” observes the study.

While analysing the migration pattern of the elephants and the Human Elephant Conflict arises thereof, the study mentions, “The availability and distribution of resources seem to primarily influence the occurrence of elephants in a particular region. Although this species does not have any natural predator, humans and anthropogenic disturbances have, over time, emerged as major threats to these mammals, occasionally threatening their very survival. Demographic changes brought about by illegal hunting may demand that elephants rapidly adapt behaviourally to such drastic ecological changes.”

But this aspects have rarely been documented, says the study while adding, “Moreover, what remain virtually unknown are the behavioural differences displayed by groups and individuals in response to these change. Such a dearth in our understanding of the behavioural decisions made by elephants, influenced both by their biology and their ecology, has left important management issues, particularly related to human-elephant conflict (HEC), unresolved and rendered ineffective several mitigation measures that have been adopted to reduce conflict in anthropogenic habitats.”

About the behaviour of elephants in the wild, the study mentions, “Behavioural patterns displayed by elephants are a result of their decision-making processes and could be influenced by their innate biology as well as the prevailing ecology. For example, a number of studies, both in Asia and Africa, have attributed crop-raiding behaviour mostly to adult males. In the Asian elephant, males are typically born in a herd, reach puberty at about the age of 10 to 15 years, form loose associations with other males or live solitarily and associate with herds thereafter only for mating. These decisions seem to be primarily governed by the requirements of a certain age or a growth phase.”

In conclusion, this study clearly shows that elephants behaviourally select high-resource areas and avoid anthropogenically disturbed areas. Several behavioural activities of elephants, especially foraging, movement and social interactions are affected by increasing disturbance levels. Thus, the management of an area for elephants must aim at reducing these disturbances. At a population level, elephants differ in their residence times within particular areas, depending on their gender, age and grouping patterns. This clearly indicates differential needs and strategies among elephants within a population. Individual level studies are thus vital in order to identify the needs of particular animals and correctly predict their behaviour. This also suggests that the management of an area should be dynamic and that we need to develop predictive models that would allow us to cater to the needs of a particular elephant population and also to the demands of each individual within it. Such an approach can immensely aid managers to take on-ground well-informed decisions in order to manage conflict, especially when dealing with highly endangered temperamental animals such as elephants.

 
 

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