Wildlife Watchers

A nationwide exercise is on to count India’s elephants – with a little help from their droppings

The All India Synchronised Asian Elephant Population Estimation will look at three aspects – elephant numbers, herd composition, and elephant distribution.

The elephant enjoys a unique place in both India’s conservation history and the present. It is an animal feted for being wise and holy, and is also at the centre of aggressive human-wildlife conflict. Due to this dual heritage, the elephant’s place as a “holy animal” or cultural icon leads to its idolatry as also disrespect. It is only the elephant that has high protection under the law and can also be kept captive – nearly all Indian wild species are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and cannot be kept captive.

Captive elephants kept by private individuals are beaten and subdued, a practice that may not end soon. In a relatively recent move, the government of India declared the elephant as India’s heritage animal. While many argue that not much has changed for elephants – habitat is fragmented, elephants are still poached and still become roadkill, among many other threats – there is now a scientific effort to map elephant numbers and distribution in India.

As per Gajah, a report of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, India has over 26,000 elephants, though the 2012 “census” gives the number at 30,000. However, this number is based on a guesstimate from many parts of the country. There are at least two outstanding issues related to elephant counts or estimations done in India thus far. First, states have not used standardised protocols to count elephants. This is unlike the All India Tiger Estimation – which estimates numbers of tigers every four years – using a set methodology. Elephants may have been missed, or may have been double counted owing to their local migrations. Second, elephants can often be hard to see.

For instance, in India’s North-eastern states, impenetrable forest makes it hard to spot elephants even if a herd is next to the observer. One can hear elephants flapping their ears, methodically breaking bamboo, or trumpeting, and still not know how many elephants are nearby. Elephant counts in different states also do not reveal proportions of elephants. Elephant biology also entails understanding population structure. The classification of age and sex in a herd, and looking at the dynamics of solitary animals within the landscape is also required for better conservation planning (Baskaran et al 2013).

Following ad hoc methods undertaken for years, a nationwide exercise, the All India Synchronised Asian Elephant Population Estimation, is now underway to estimate India’s elephants. It involves both direct and indirect methods, and in order to make up for the difficulty of direct sightings, dung density estimates will be used. Three aspects will be tackled by the estimation and discussed here – elephant numbers, herd composition, and elephant distribution.

Answers in the dung

Any sort of wildlife count is faced with the practical challenge of where to start from, and where to end. A forest beat could be up to 50 km, and heterogeneities in terrain and habitat type pose distinct physical problems. Elephants are found in a range of habitat: in dry scrub forests, as well as impenetrable subtropical forests, and particularly in the latter, sightings are a problem. The search for wild animals is often complicated by season, migrations or physical difficulties in terrain. That is why most animal counts are at best estimations, and not a census. Stated difficulties in counting or encountering elephants in Cambodia have led to ecologists conducting DNA testing of elephant dung (Gray et al 2014).

The All India Synchronised Asian Elephant Population Estimation is led by the Project Elephant Directorate of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and is being conducted by state forest departments with the help of research institutions and non-governmental organisations, with technical support from the Indian Institute of Science and Asian Nature Conservation Foundation. The All India Synchronised Asian Elephant Population Estimation will make the use of direct sighting as well as a new, indirect way of gauging elephant presence – through the heaps of dung they leave behind.

For the direct method, sightings will be recorded over sample blocks. To counter the challenges of direct covering or sighting elephants over huge areas, the new estimation restricts the search to an average of five square kilometres. Sample blocks of this size will be randomly selected; and there is a stated emphasis on covering representative habitats of the particular area. Thus, a hilly habitat should include hills, and not just valleys frequented by elephants, in the sample block or line transect despite challenges in surveying such a habitat.

While direct counts have been done before, elephant population structure and herd composition have not been looked at nationally. Population structure – which includes male to female ratio in a herd, number of herd member among others, number of juveniles, sub-adults – is an important ecological question to answer. But it may also be key to understanding human-wildlife conflict drivers. For instance, it is observed that male elephants show less precaution while approaching people than female elephants leading herds because of a high risk-high gain strategy (Sukumar 1991). Usually, elephant herds are led by females and contain other females, calves, and juvenile males. However, in conflict areas such as Alur in Karnataka, it has also been observed that male and female elephants have come together to form non-traditional herds (Chakraborty et al 2014).

To understand population structure, elephants will be directly observed and photographed in communal areas such as salt licks, water holes, and open areas. This is only to gauge elephant population structures – and not add to counts or density estimates.

However, the moot challenges of direct sightings, as well as a sole reliance on direct sightings, still remain. To counter this, an indirect method, the line transect dung count, is being used. This method bases itself on the idea that elephant dung is encountered much more frequently than the actual elephants. Various components are involved. The first is elephant dung density. This is done through a rigorous statistical method known as “line transects”. The second is understanding the rate of defecation. This is usually about 15 times a day for elephants. The third is dung decay rate. Dung decay rate seeks to understand how fast dung disappears in a particular site or habitat. Temperature, rainfall, dung beetles and other factors can impact daily rate of decomposition. Knowing how fast dung decays at a site is key to using this method. For this, fresh dung piles are identified and marked for monitoring over a five month to six month period prior to estimation of dung density.

Currently, dung decay rate experiments are ongoing in about 35 locations in India. These started in late 2016. Under the experiment, about 15-20 piles of dung are marked at a location. Twenty days later, another 15-20 piles of dung are marked. During the time of the elephant estimation, it is seen how many dung piles remain. Finally, the line transect method is used for this exercise: observations are made following a set line (of 1 km-2 km) throughout the area being sampled.

Elephants outside known forest

Apart from sighting elephants, and understanding herd composition, another challenge that elephant conservation throws up is centred around their movement. Elephants migrate over Indian states, and this is problematised by an ever-changing and increasingly human-dominated landscape. While humans expect wild animals to stay “inside” forests or protected areas, species do come out of these refuges, whether to migrate or to forage for food. Often, there are losses on the sides of both elephants and people when encounters happen. Adverse incidents have led to popular perceptions getting skewed against elephants. For instance, a headline in the Hindustan Times on April 25 read, “Jumbos as Deadly as Maoists in Jharkhand”, suggesting that elephants plan their attacks on innocent civilians. Between April 2008 and March 2011, 91 people were killed by elephants, and 101 elephants were killed by people in Karnataka (Gubbi et al 2014).

Particularly in eastern and central India, elephants are seen trapped between forest segments, unable to find enough food or dispersal areas. In the recent past, two such incidents have come to light. The National Green Tribunal gave directions to the Numaligarh refinery near the Kaziranga landscape to take down a wall as it came in the way of elephant passage (R Choudhary v Union of India). This is after it had been observed that elephants had died in trying to break the wall.

In yet another case, conservationists are currently involved in a campaign to assist a herd of elephants trapped in Athgarh between two protected areas, Kapilash and Chandaka. While an area might look “natural” if it is not built upon by human beings, patches of natural areas may not fulfil the needs of elephants. The Karnataka Elephant Task Force Report (p 11), submitted to the High Court of Karnataka, identified the roots of human-elephant conflict as:

The ecological basis of such conflicts is rooted in a set of complex factors including loss, fragmentation and degradation of the natural habitat, regional changes in land-use pattern, attraction from the superior palatability and nutritional properties of cultivated plants as compared to the natural forage of the elephant, social organisation of the elephant with adult males generally becoming more persistent raiders, and adverse climatic events such as droughts causing elephant groups to disperse from their native habitats. 

Several Make in India and linear projects are underway, dedicated to activities like road and highway building, renewable energy (which will extend to natural areas and wilderness) and general industrialisation (Sinha and Raman 2015). There is a general consensus that the government is relaxing norms and environmental clearance processes for faster industrialisation and growth (Dutta 2016). This could mean greater habitat fragmentation and habitat loss for all wild species.

Since elephants traverse long distances, it is prudent to not just look at elephant populations inside protected areas or elephant reserves but also in the larger landscape. Elephants have been spotted and noticed in human-dominated or human-influenced landscapes, but this often has adverse consequences. A series of government of India advisories were issued to states on various demonstrated threats to elephants. Some of these include checking the sagging of electric lines so that elephants do not get electrocuted, trains moving at a slow pace through known elephant habitat between sunset and sunrise, the creation of underpasses or overpasses for elephant passage in areas with railway lines, and the setting up of a coordination committee between the Ministry of Railways and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. However, elephant deaths still continue. In 2013, as many as 17 elephants were killed or injured by a train in Chapramari, West Bengal, making national and international news.

The Elephant Population Estimation is envisaged to look at elephant distribution within landscapes, beyond just reserve forests, protected areas, and elephant reserves. This will be through both direct sightings as well as creating maps of elephant distribution through sources like human-elephant conflict compensation claims and elephant deaths in the larger landscape.

Current maps of elephant distribution are broadly based on research studies in protected areas. Distribution and movement (and not just elephant numbers) help in conservation planning. There have been calls made by conservationists to protect elephant corridors for the continued persistence of the species (Menon et al 2005).

There is a stated need for not only elephant conservation but also elephant management, which involves coming up with a pragmatic management plan for elephant reserves not just within states but also as interstate reserves.

While elephants are seen as holy creatures, but are also known for conflict with humans nationwide, there simultaneously also exist traditions of tolerance towards losses caused by elephants. Madhusudan (2003) notes in the case of losses caused by elephants and tigers in Bhadra tiger reserves:

Culture has certainly advanced the limits of tolerance to economic losses, but cannot do so indefinitely. Economics has begun to eclipse cultural symbolism in this age of markets, and one must recognise this reality in conserving large mammals. Yet, whatever the economic and administrative means of tackling wildlife-human conflict, they must be seen not as substitutes to India’s tolerant traditions, but as important means of strengthening them. 

In the purported land of tolerance, the exact dimensions of the challenges posed by human-elephant interaction need to be fully known. How many elephants India has, where they are found, and how their herds are structured – all questions that the All India Synchronised Asian Elephant Population Estimation seeks to answer will be a belated first step towards this understanding.

This article first appeared on Economic and Political Weekly.

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