23 May, 2024

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Conservation Of The Asian Elephant

By Gayanga Dissanayaka

Gayanga Dissanayaka

In regards to the elephant-human conflict in our country, something particularly important about the issue is that despite decades of research, our understanding of elephant behaviour, especially their usage of changing environments continues to be limited. Dr. Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, a marine biologist spoke at the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) last week sharing his experiences and discussing the various conflict management strategies that could be adopted to defy these challenges.

Vijayakrishnan explained that we are currently living in a very difficult time where the environment is undergoing drastic changes primarily owing to anthropogenic pressures unfortunately at alarming rates. He pointed out that there’s this notion today that we are entering a new geological approach. Extensive changes that we see to these habitats have prompted many species to adapt to these environmental changes in order to ensure long term survival and fitness. There is a wide range of species even in Sri Lanka that are subsisting almost exclusively in human modified landscapes or in rural to urban areas. And there is a range of behavioural and physiological adaptations that these species have to undergo in order to ensure that they do well in these conditions.

Elephant in the room

“People tend to perceive that animals have to be within protected areas alone, which unfortunately does not hold true anymore.” explained Vijayakrishnan. “There is a range of species who are often unable to adapt to these changing environments. When those species encounter extensive habitat loss, they are at tremendous extinction risk.”

Elephants are a remarkable species known for their long association with human kind. They are known extensively for their behavioural plasticity and their use of different kinds of habitats. However, since the 1970s, studies have shown that there’s been over a 50% loss of Asian elephant habitats across their ranges primarily due to increasing human population and increase in demand for natural resources. As a result, an extensive network of protected areas of forested landscapes have now been shrunk to few contiguous patches of forest and what we call as habitat islands which are surrounded by vast rates of urban or rural landscapes. This has resulted in significant changes in their ecology and behaviour.

“What is really interesting is that contrary to the widespread notion that elephants need undisturbed, protected area complexes, it’s fascinating that elephants actually respond well to disturbances.” the biologist said. Earlier studies both from Africa and Asia have actually shown that disturbed areas or modified landscapes actually have elephant populations that tend to have large home range sizes. And when there are landscapes that undergo such tremendous pressures, disturbance actually drives elephants to move farther.

He described that when elephants use human dominated landscapes extensively, that means there is intense overlap between elephants and humans in terms of their space usage, in terms of their activity patterns during day and night. This further translates into what people call as human-elephant conflict.

What can we do?

Vijayakrishnan explained that in India, they have been putting down unplanned, unscientific haphazardly installed physical barriers which have eventually resulted in inevitable failures. We have also adopted reactive measures such as capturing elephants and keeping them in captivity in forest camps. Translocation of elephants have also led either to increased conflicts or mortality of the translocated animals. Either way, he noted that it is counter productive when it comes to elephant conservation.

He pointed out that any conversation intervention not backed by solid science is bound to fail. And this is where the importance of understanding the special temporal patterns, the circumstances etc of these instances really matter. “Not all increased conflict instances are direct translation of increase in elephant numbers. Because if we look at Vietnam, despite having less than 100 or even 50 elephants, Vietnam still has conflicts.” he said. Therefore he highlighted that it’s really not elephant numbers that translate to elephant conflicts but their behavioural adaptations and unplanned mitigation strategies in those areas. Throughout Vijayakrishnan’s presentation, he noted that there’s no quick fix for any conflict and that we need to understand elephants at site specific conditions, most importantly taking behaviour into picture. Some of the earliest studies on Asian elephants have been from Sri Lanka and emphasised how it’s something that Sri Lanka should be really proud of.

However, he also stressed that despite 55-60 years of research on Asian elephants, our understanding of Asian elephant behaviour specifically in changing environments is extremely limited. “We need to take all that into account when it comes to conservation planning for the species,” he said.

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    Some deep ecologists particularly the likes of William Rees are of the view that human population on planet earth has far exceeded its carrying capacity by many folds with disastrous consequenses both to its own population and the rest of the biosphere at large – a factor that may have to be given some thought by any environmentalist, including the ones who are driving efforts of conversation, like the ones described by the essayist.
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    While Rees himself doesn’t particularly speak about elephant conservation his thoughts may be relevant to the overall domain of conservation. Below is a podcast in which Rees is being interviewed by Nate Hagens:
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    https://www.resilience.org/stories/2023-01-11/william-e-rees-the-fundamental-issue-overshoot/#:~:text=Professor%20Rees%20outlines%20why%20most,used%20by%20a%20given%20population.
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    There may not be qick fixes to any of the environmental issues that we face today. Being cognizant of various characterizations of the problem however is imperative in finding a discourse to address the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

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