Elephants and observations in human-modified landscapes

Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

January 2019

Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, is a research scholar in the Western Ghats whose PhD is being funded by Elephant Family. Recognised by the charity as a future innovator, Sreedhar’s research focuses on the behaviour of Asian elephants, especially in human-modified landscapes and conflict situations.

“I’ve been captivated by the species since I can remember. I believe in multidisciplinary approaches involving behaviour, physiology, genetics, and a wide range of other areas in dealing with larger-than-life issues such as conflict and this is what got me particularly interested in the Anamalai Elephant Programme of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF).”

Working through the NCF programme with the award-winning wildlife scientist Dr  Ananda Kumar, their goals are to understand the behaviour of the elephants in the area and to involve local communities, government departments, school children and the business community in rainforest restoration and wildlife conservation. This collaboration is key to peaceful coexistence, not just with the regions elephants, but all wildlife.

His research is being conducted in the Alur–Sakleshpur–Kodlipet region of Karnataka, which has the largest Asian elephant population of any state in India at c.6,000. The landscape, once densely forested, is now dominated by coffee plantations with some paddy farms and very little forest cover resulting in a great deal of conflict between humans and elephants.

Map showing land use in the region - brown is coffee plantations
Map showing land use in the region – brown is coffee plantations

Sreedhar is trying to understand the effect that these large-scale landscape changes have on elephant behaviour. The long-term impact of such a study will inform planning and management of human development in order to avoid future developments threatening elephant habitat.

“By a combination of methods including direct observation, movement tracking and measurement of stress hormone levels in dung samples we can gain insight into the herds’ general health, structure and number of births and deaths – and contribute important information to managers to help alter any plans threatening elephants’ habitat,” he explains.

Elephants, being generalist species, have the capacity to adapt ecologically and behaviourally in modified landscapes. Their use of a mosaic of natural and modified habitats is often determined by resource availability, extent of area available, vegetation type, and pressures associated with modified landscapes. Factors such as composition of habitat mosaics, their spatial arrangements, and resource quality influence elephants’ preference and selection of habitats. Studies have also shown that factors such as availability of water and nutritional contents in forage determine elephants’ habitat use and their range patterns in wet and dry seasons.

Observing elephants in the field, Karnataka
Observing elephants in the field, Karnataka

In fragmented landscapes, remnant forest patches and habitats with tree cover could provide important food resources and serve as refugia for many wildlife species including elephants outside Protected Areas. Thus, in such habitats, information on elephant distribution, their use of habitats, and interactions with humans is crucial to coexistence in areas that currently witness severe conflict.

His findings over the study period reveal that:

  • In the first year elephants were evenly distributed throughout the 610km2 landscape, but in year two they were highly concentrated in the north due to an increase in tree felling and coffee plantations. This concentration led to increased conflict between the elephants and local villagers.
  • Investigations into habitat use showed that during the day elephants preferred to keep to forest fragments and avoid reservoirs, coffee plantations, roads, and villages, but at night they moved more frequently into agricultural land.
  • In the heat of the dry season, elephants spent more time foraging in natural vegetation, and taking advantage of the food and water available in coffee plantations, whereas in the wet season elephants went into the paddy fields to raid the matured crop, which was ready for harvest.
  • Overall, elephants preferred to spend their time in monocultures of acacia, eucalyptus, abandoned coffee plantations and reserved forests remnants, making it clear that protecting existing natural forests and monocultures is vital to protecting elephants and preventing human-elephant conflict.
  • India’s large population – of humans and of elephants – makes it very difficult to prevent overlap between the two species, especially because elephants are capable of adapting their behaviour and habitat use to suit their conditions, and will move into agricultural land if their natural habitat is unavailable.
  • If tree felling continues without a landscape-level management strategy, elephants will be forced to continue to adapt their habitat use, spending more time in coffee plantations and paddy fields, leading to ever-increasing conflict with humans.

Sreedhar is now finalising his field studies and hopes to submit his PhD early in 2020.

You can read more around this study and the adaptation of elephants to human habitation at Sage Journals here  and in a recent Mongabay article ‘Elephants can adapt to human habitation, but sirens stress them out’  here

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