Biodiversity Forestry

Elephant – Understanding the Invisible Hulk of Indian Forests

When it comes to the Man – Animal Conflict, Elephants always have a special mention! They account for maximum numbers of conflicts and kill or injure maximum number of people than all other animals. Also, they are the one to get killed in higher numbers during conflicts. Over 400 humans and 80 elephants get killed every year because of Human – Elephants Conflicts alone. Unlike other animals, elephants are known for their Annual Migration which is the main reason behind these high tolls.

But how?

Elephants generally follow the same tracks annually to move from one home range to other. These tracks are called as the ‘Corridors’ (that connects one habitat with another) which ranges between one kilometre to few hundred kilometres. In India, there are 101 elephant corridors currently being used by these pachyderms. Of these corridors 28 are in South India, 25 are in Central India, 23 are in North East, 14 are in North Bengal and 11 in North western India. But the problem is only 12.9% of these corridors are completely under Forest and 44.5% are jointly under Forest and Agricultural lands and Settlements, 15.85% are jointly under Forest, Tea gardens and Settlements. Recent studies shows that the length of these corridors are on an increasing trend and the width follows a decreasing trend (Currently only 21.8% corridors are one to three kilometre in width, but it was 41% in 2005) which shows that the elephant has to move greater kilometres during their migration in search of food and water and their pathways are getting narrower day by day, due to human encroachment. In addition to these problems the public structures like roads, railways and irrigation canals also intercept along the corridors. Almost 66.3 of the corridors have highways along them and 20 corridors have railway lines along them. Hence conflicts become inevitable during their trip.

Jumbos require a huge space to live and roam. Their huge appetite (an average sized elephant requires 150 kg of food and about 75 L of water daily) will not be available in a single place. Hence this makes it essential for the elephants to roam (they spent 16-18 hours a day in searching food). We should not restrict their movement in the name of avoiding conflicts because it simply leads to their starvation.

The Way Forward

Most of the times, a famous Rajini dialogue “Eppo varuven.. Epdi varuvennu theriyathu.. Aana varavendiya nerathula correct’a varuven…” suits well for our Elephants. Unlike African elephants, the Asian counterparts are difficult to monitor due to the dense forest and undulating terrain in the Asiatic region. Lack of information about the herd movement is the main factor which leads to conflicts. Really it’s a herculean task to keep on tracking, locating and maintaining the records of the movement of 27,000 elephants in our country.

Currently, to study their movement two technologies are being used. First is the Radio Collaring of Elephants and second is the advanced animal detecting sensor called ELE-TRACK.

Radio Collaring of Wild Elephants

A collar with a GPS tracker and signal transmitter which is tied around the neck of an Elephant will send the location of that animal at fixed intervals to the officials. It can be used to study the migration pattern and movement of Elephants. But it’s not our pet cat or dog for which we can easily tie a belt around their neck. For a wild Elephant it takes two to four days to put the radio collar in its place. Firstly, the elephant which is to be radio collared must be selected. It can be an individual in a herd or a solitary bull. Next, that elephant should be tracked and closely monitored to study its health and must also be examined for wounds because the radio collaring requires a healthy individual. Then the terrain should be studied before tranquilising the animal. Plains are preferred over undulating terrains. And finally experts should be called to dart the animals. Tranquilising elephants is an art. The drug should be in proportion to the body weight of the animals, over drug or under drug can lead to fatal consequences. Using a dart gun the drug should be injected and it cannot be injected in any sensitive places and the darting place should be beyond the reach of trunk and tail (swinging of tail and trunk can deflect the dart). The thigh and triceps portion above the legs are most preferred sites for darting. After darting, other elephants of that herd should be driven out of that place using trained elephants. Immediately after the drug injection, the elephant loses it control and roams for a while in a drowsy state. After confirming the animal’s sedation the radio collar should be attached around its neck and it should be tested. After completing all the procedures the revival drug should be injected and after some time the elephant wakes up to rejoin its herd. Only after tranquilising the animal the radio collar can be attached and It is not at all possible to tranquilise these much number of animals. Because Asian Elephants are majorly found under thick vegetation, where visibility is a major issue while darting. But the case is different for African elephants which are majorly found in open savannahs. There visibility is not a problem and darting a large number of animals can be done from a helicopter. Last week Africa witnessed one of the largest translocation of elephants. About 200 elephants were translocated from South Africa to Zinave National Park in Mozambique. But in India, it is not at all possible because of diverse landforms and forests.  

ELE-TRACK

An automatic solar powered infrared sensor which can detect the movement of large mammals. It is currently used to detect the movement of elephants near railway tracks. After detection it can send messages to the station master and Forest officials about the location of the elephants near tracks. Still it is under pilot testing. Since 1987, over 220 elephants have died in collision with trains while crossing the railway lines. Hence Ele-Track seems to be more prominent and promising technology to reduce elephant deaths. Not only in railway tracks, if updated Ele-track can be used to monitor the elephant movement in all the fringe areas. Think of an app linked to Ele-Track which can alert forest officials, local people, farmers, loco pilots about the movement of the elephants at their proximity. It gives essential time to avoid a close encounter and helps the forest officials to do all the preventive measures well in advance. Hence Ele-Track can revolutionize the monitoring and alerting mechanisms with respect to Human-Elephant Conflicts, if and only if provided with sufficient budget for the further R&D.

Miles to Go…

When a field is raided by a herd of elephants nothing remains except a few lumps of dung. All the hard work, money and hope invested by the farmer will be lost in a matter of minutes which makes the farmers to avenge elephants. But it’s not the fault of the jumbos. They don’t know which one is a forest crop and which one is a food crop but they know those lands for a very long time. For this issue government has to take timely action and the compensation given to those affected farmers should be increased and given without delay. In this case, Red-tapism will further aggravate the farmers’ anger toward elephants. Government should give preference to long term solutions over short term ones in solving problems like human and elephant killings during conflicts.

They don’t know which one is a forest crop and which one is a food crop but they know those lands for a very long time.

The survival of Asian Elephants is already threatened by Poaching, Habitat fragmentation and Climate change. Human-Elephant Conflicts will act like a catalyst if it goes in this pace. So, it is essential to take all the protective measures before it is too late.  

The author, S.Muthumani, a forestry graduate is our Special Reporter for Forestry. He can be asked and told at iammuthu.fcri@gmail.com

The photographer, Manojkumar, a third year B.Sc. Forestry student, is a wildlife photographer cum nature enthusiast. He can be reached at michealmanoj1996@gmail.com

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