Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight.

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is a maze of villages where elephants must find their way.

Our first project on elephants was to assess connectivity at the landscape scale across the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the Western Ghats of India. This region which covers an area of a little more than 5,000 km2, supports a population of around 6,000 elephants. The expansion of human settlements and business enterprises such as resorts had partially severed connectivity between the populations in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department had identified corridors for regulating human activities that hinder elephant movement but their attempt was opposed in Court. We together, with our collaborator Dr. Samuel Cushman of the US Forest Service, modelled connectivity at the landscape scale across this region, and identified elephant corridors are varying scales, the largest of which ran east to west across a highly human modified landscape (4). Our findings largely supported the corridors identified by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. The case is still before the Supreme Court of India and in the meanwhile the local administration has taken action against the multiple illegal enterprises that were functioning without regulation in the proposed elephant corridors.

Legal or illegal tourism development keeps encroaching on elephant habitat.

We also became concerned about the narrative regarding the elephant population that was apparently increasing in certain areas with range expansion (5,6; The Hindustan News). This was thought to be an increasing source of ‘conflicts’. The solutions to this state of affairs were translocation, sterilization and eventually culling. Translocations are being viewed as the easy short-cut resolution to problems with elephants and widely implemented with no empirical support as to their success (7). Sterilisation is proposed in the near future, and culling although strongly recommended (8,9) is being kept in abeyance for now. We re-examined a model proposed by Chelliah et al. (2013) which supported culling as a management tool. We demonstrated that the proposed model was faulty and consequently could not be used as a tool to manage elephant populations through culling males (10,11), especially since the large-scale slaughter of male elephants (tuskers) through three decades of ivory poaching had resulted in highly skewed sex ratios (11). We also participated in a paper led by our young colleague Rajapandian Kanagaran of the Wildlife Institute of India while at the the National Museum of Natural Sciences, Madrid, Spain, on the impact of anthropogenic global warming. We found that elephant habitat may be reduced by 45% particularly along the eastern part of peninsula India within 50-years (12). The shrinkage of habitat will provoke a reduction of population by probably the same proportion. When the future looks to grim, it is a puzzle to us why population control can be proposed based on little scientific evidence of its benefits to elephant conservation [see related blog post here about what the population models tell us].

Our third project came fortuitously while looking at the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve landscape: the large gaps in forest cover in certain regions aroused our curiosity. Dr. Sanjay Gubbi had published a paper on human-elephant conflicts in the Kodagu region which has faced high deforestation rates due to expansion of coffee plantations (13). Dr. Gubbi provided the database on ‘conflicts’ to help analyze the relationship between ‘conflicts’ and deforestation rates. We found a significant positive association indicating that ‘conflicts’ were not random events caused by elephants, but were associated with loss of their habitat (14). The study covered an area of 45,710 sq km ranging from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in the north to the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in the south. Annual deforestation rates were calculated between the 1960’s and 2000’s with land use maps from the same region. The results show that around 6,761 km2 of forest and scrubland had disappeared in 50 years, and this has resulted in increase in human-elephant incidents in the region, which range from loss of crop to that of human life. And apart from the shrinking habitats owing to transformation of forest cover mostly in private lands, deforestation has also severed the link between the Tiger Reserves of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the Bhadra Tiger Reserve most notably in the west (Kodagu District) and in the north of the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve (Hassan District).

The Sigur River was dry for more than six months in 2016-2017 due to a drought and a dam to generate electricity: global warming and mismanagement will further endanger the elephant.

On a personal note, we live within an elephant habitat and have come to know several wild elephants that visit our premises. One such was Rivaldo who was treated by veterinary doctors of the Forest Department on two different occasions across from our verandah for injuries, the first of which was caused by people. Rivaldo became quite used to the sugarcane, and watermelon he was fed, to distract him from the treatment. He was a very friendly and docile elephant, albeit quite large. He used to visit the neighbouring villages where he was fed by tourists or helped himself to bananas from the shops. The Forest Department was pondering whether to capture him and shift him to the elephant camp they maintain at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. We were concerned about this move. Fortunately we had maintained a database of his visits to the house after the treatment was over. Analysing the data, we found that after the feeding was stopped, Rivaldo visited less and less frequently and finally went back to jungle fare. We published a paper in Gajah (15), which was used by forest personnel to discourage people from feeding Rivaldo so that he could return to the wild. He is still a free ranging elephant, still a problem with being illegally fed by tourists, but we hope he will remain free [see related blog posts here and here about Rambo, Udawalawe’s original beggar].

Rivaldo being brought to our house at the Sigur Nature Trust to be treated.


Rivaldo being treated.

We found till now very little reasons to speak about ‘conflict’ with elephants or wildlife in our studies. In most instances, encroachment and illegal activities with little implementation of the law are to blame for incidents. Climate change, senseless destruction of the environment and over-population are to be blamed and are definitely of our own making. Eliminating threatened species further by some form of supposedly ‘scientific’ population control will not help. We only need to consider whether we want a sustainable world or not because this where the only conflict lies.

Priya Davidar and Jean-Philippe Puyravaud are researchers and conservationists based at the Sigur Nature Trust, India. Their publications can be found here and here.



  1. Barua, M. 2010. “Whose issue? Representations of human-elephant conflict in Indian and international media.” Science Communication32, 55-75.
  2. Peterson, M.N., Birckhead, J.L., Leong, K., Peterson, M.J. and Peterson, T.R. 2010. “Rearticulating the myth of human–wildlife conflict.” Conservation Letters3, 74-82.
  3. Davidar, P. 2018. “The term human-wildlife conflict creates more problems than it resolves: better labels should be considered.” Journal of Threatened Taxa10, 12082-12085.4. Puyravaud, J.P., Cushman, S.A., Davidar, P. and Madappa, D. 2017.
  4. Puyravaud, J.P., Cushman, S.A., Davidar, P. and Madappa, D. 2017. Predicting landscape connectivity for the Asian elephant in its largest remaining subpopulation. Animal Conservation20, 225-234.
  5. Baskaran, N., Varma, S., Sar, C.K. and Sukumar, R. 2011. Current status of Asian elephants in India. Gajah35, 47-54.
  6. Desai, A.A. and Riddle, H.S. 2015. Human-elephant conflict in Asia. Report supported by: US Fish and Wildlife Service Asian Elephant Support, pp.10-12.
  7. Fernando, P., Leimgruber, P., Prasad, T. and Pastorini, J. 2012. Problem-elephant translocation: translocating the problem and the elephant?. PloS one7(12), p.e50917.
  8. Chelliah, K., Bukka, H. and Sukumar, R. 2013. Modeling harvest rates and numbers from age and sex ratios: A demonstration for elephant populations. Biological conservation165, 54-61.
  9. Sukumar, R., Ramakrishnan, U. and Santosh, J.A. 1998. Impact of poaching on an Asian elephant population in Periyar, southern India: a model of demography and tusk harvest. In Animal Conservation forum (Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 281-291). Cambridge University Press.
  10. Puyravaud, J.P. and Davidar, P. 2016. Culling of Asian elephants and overextension of population modelling. Biological Conservation100, 423.
  11. Puyravaud, J.P., Davidar, P., Srivastava, R.K. and Wright, B. 2017. Modelling harvest of Asian elephants Elephas maximus on the basis of faulty assumptions promotes inappropriate management solutions. Oryx51, 506-512.
  12. Kanagaraj, R., Araujo, M.B., Barman, R., Davidar, P., De, R., Digal, D.K., Gopi, G.V., Johnsingh, A.J.T., Kakati, K., Kramer‐Schadt, S. and Lamichhane, B.R. 2019. Predicting range shifts of Asian elephants under global change. Diversity and Distributions25, 822-838.
  13. Gubbi, S., Swaminath, M.H., Poornesha, H.C., Bhat, R. and Raghunath, R. 2014. An elephantine challenge: human–elephant conflict distribution in the largest Asian elephant population, southern India. Biodiversity and conservation, 23, 633-647.
  14. Puyravaud, J.P., Gubbi, S., Poornesha, H.C. and Davidar, P. 2019. Deforestation increases frequency of incidents with elephants (Elephas maximus). Tropical Conservation Science12, p.1940082919865959
  15. Puyravaud, J.P., Puyravaud, S. E. and Davidar, P. 2016. Can a wild Asian elephant change its interaction patterns with humans? Gajah, 44, 30-32.






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