How elephants in Sri Lanka use protected areas

By Annie Madsen

Elephant behavior has long endeared the public. From complex social structures to tool use, hearing stories about behavior not only teaches about fantastic ecological adaptations, it shows a window into elephant’s lives that we can understand and relate to on a personal level. Showcasing behaviors has often been used to help elephant conservation. However, behaviors are sometimes disconnected from how managers actually conserve elephant populations. In a new study, we examine elephant space use behavior in the hope that it can directly inform management practices.

Although protected areas are an important part of conservation strategies, it’s important that conservationists and wildlife managers understand how animals use actually protected areas. In this study, we used observational data that the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project had collected about Asian elephants at Udawalawe National Park over nine years. A unique aspect of this study was that we it was based on direct observations rather than the movements of particular individuals that were tracked (e.g. with collars) so it represents a much larger sample than studies of space use can typically accommodate. We also had social and behavioral data so we wanted to know how certain aspects of life history affected park use for males and females. How often were elephants using the park, and critically, how often were they not using the park? This gives us an idea of how much of the population is actually residential to Udawalawe. To answer these questions, we investigated park use for males and females separately, and with different behavioral considerations. A key variable was the amount of time (days) that elapsed between consecutive sightings. The longer this interval, the further away they could potentially go from the park.

Female Asian elephants have complex social behaviors. Day to day, females spend time in small social groups of only 2-3 individuals, but they also form much larger social communities over long time periods (months to years). We found that in Udawalawe, females with strong social associations had more similar park use to each other compared to those with weaker social associations. In the larger social communities, many females used the park on a longer-term basis. Other females in the population were only seen in a couple of years. Females that used the park on a long-term basis were considered residents, but half of the female population did not meet this criterion, and only used the park during part of their lives. One of the main take-aways from this set of results is that social groups do not necessarily all travel together in and out of the park. Based on earlier research we already knew that social relationships could shift from year to year, so this shows that the decision to move is partly related to what social companions are doing but also depends on individuals’ own choices.

The study area includes only the middle section of the park, where there is a road network. The upper map shows high spatial overlap between males who were seen only foraging (f), only in musth (m) or both states (f+m). Likewise, the lower map shows spatial overlap between female groups that were less residential (3 & 9) vs. those that were more residential (10 & 12).

Compared to females, male elephants live relatively solitary lives. This is especially true during mate searching, when males enter a “musth” state. When in this state, bulls have a one-track mind for finding mates and largely abandon foraging behavior, increasing aggression and movement. We asked how males used the park differently according to their age and their main motivations for being in the park: searching for mates, foraging, or a mix of both. We found that age and motivation both affected male park use, and these were tightly linked. Younger males used the park mainly for foraging and later dispersed, while more males in the older age classes were split between using the park for both purposes, or solely for mate searching. Males were also more likely to be seen in multiple in years if their park-use strategy included both behaviors, or if they were older and used the park for mating only. However, we also found that most of the males that were considered residents used the park only for foraging, and this was a minority of males, with most being considered non-residents. A very interesting finding was that males appear to shift strategies around the age of 40, where they appear to settle into a more regular pattern of visitation exclusively during their musth periods. We think this is because males must wander around and lead a rather nomadic life for quite some time while testing and re-testing their competitive ability against other males in male-male contests before finally establishing their reproductive dominance.

Our study showed that the majority of the population (around three quarters!) is non-resident. Since most of the Udawalawe elephants primarily spend time outside of the park, this has important implications for conservation and management of this population. The landscape outside the park has variable land use, with some areas that are also protected and others that are heavily modified by agriculture and human settlements. There are thin pieces of protected land connecting National Parks that elephants use as corridors, but these areas vary between mixed-used land and sanctuaries. As we can see from our results, protected areas certainly do not qualify as a one-size-fits-all conservation strategy. In addition to maintaining protected areas, we also need to maintain connectivity with the surrounding landscapes so elephants and other wildlife can move safely between areas as they change space use depending on their individual needs and motivations.

Reference:

Madsen, A. E., Minge, C., Pushpakumara, T. V., Weerathunga, U. S., Padmalal, U. K., Weerakoon, D. K., & de Silva, S. (2022). Strategies of protected area use by Asian elephants in relation to motivational state and social affiliations. Scientific reports, 12(1), 1-13.

Full text open access at: Strategies of protected area use by Asian elephants in relation to motivational state and social affiliations | Scientific Reports

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Annie Madsen is a PhD candidate studying animal behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sri Lankan Economic Crisis: Why it Matters

UWERP’s field technician, Janaka, delivering a month’s supply of dry rations to a rural Sri Lankan family

The story so far

Over the last few months, Sri Lanka’s economy crashed and the island nation is now facing its worst economic crisis in history. For Sri Lankans, the crisis has turned their daily lives into an endless cycle of waiting in lines for basic goods – many of which are being rationed. Why is this happening?

The main reasons are loss of foreign currency due to COVID’s impact on tourism, and mismanagement of the country’s predominantly agricultural economy. Foreign reserves have been reduced by roughly 85%, grinding daily life to a halt. There are huge lines for fuel (for transport) and gas (for cooking). The lack of fuel also affects the country’s power supply, with people facing up to 16 hrs of power cuts daily. The lack of fuel has created a shortage of vegetables in the market and thus the prices have shot up by 30-80%. Additionally, as the country cannot afford imports, products like butter and milk powder are now unavailable. The Sri Lankan Medical Association has also stated that medical supplies are running low and by the end of April, Sri Lanka ran out of key medicines and medical supplies. 

Why are we helping farming communities? 

Trunks & Leaves has been involved in the Udalawawe area for more than a decade. We have worked with communities around the national park helped them for many years, because we know that people are key to conservation success. Although farmers are sometimes painted as villains owing to their part in so-called “human-elephant conflict,” nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers recognize and appreciate the value of elephants and other wildlife, they simply need to earn a livelihood as well. Last year in 2021, farmers in Southerns Sri Lanka actually went on a hunger strike, demanding the creation of a promised reserve, which they hoped would help the elephants and reduce the pressure on their croplands.

This year, we were to launch our trials of (elephant-resistant) alternative crops on a larger scale, but have had to put everything on pause given the current crisis. And yet we realized, NOW is when help is needed the most. Although we are a wildlife conservation organization and not dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, we couldn’t stand by and do nothing.

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New pan-Indian study of elephant genetics reveals surprises

Herd of elephants in Terai Arc Landscape

Asian elephants were once widely distributed in India, but are now restricted to four widely separated regions: the north-western (NW), north-eastern (NE), east-central (ECI), and the southern India (SI). When you undertake the population genetics study of a wildlife species, the quality of the result is related to the design of the field sampling protocol. This is to ensure that the sampling is extensive covering different areas to avoid over-sampling of more accessible populations. When we started our population genetics study of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus L.), we planned to collect fresh elephant dung samples from across the beats and various ranges of protected forests in India. This of course often involved traversing through inhospitable and difficult terrain with a forest staff in attendance. The first problem were the elephants themselves. To get fresh dung, one had to go close to elephants for collecting samples. This often did not go down too well with some individuals who responded to the invasion by a determined charge. We were fortunate not to have suffered any mishaps and ultimately it worked out well and we were able to collate an impressive database of elephant dung samples.

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Camera Trapping Elephants in Agricultural Areas

In partnership with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand, we’re excited to share this picture diary from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


Written by Brooke Friswold

It has been another busy month in Ruam Thai Village! We have erected ten camera traps on pineapple farms with the consent of local farmers in areas with reported high frequency of visitation and five on lemongrass farmland rented by Bring the Elephant Home.

In speaking with the farmers they were very excited and enthusiastic to share their experience: some of the farmers say that the elephants are coming most nights to their land, while others say it can be weekly or also come in waves, with times of high visitation followed by lapses in appearance. The farmers were very eager and interested to share and discuss where the best placement would be for the camera traps, the trails the elephants use to enter, and the recent visitations they had.

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Human-Elephant Conflict: Opportunities for coexistence

As the world grows more crowded, spaces inhabited by wildlife and humans tend to overlap resulting in human-wildlife conflict (HWC). While peaceful coexistence is possible, negative encounters due to various factors continue to be a challenge in conservation. Human expansion into wildlife habitat is especially problematic for Asian elephants that need a large area for their ecological needs[1]. As a result, these animals break into human settlements and cause significant losses to the community. 

Asian elephants are found to impose the highest damages with a probability of 35.1%.[4] Photo by Lokesh Kaushik on Unsplash
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Conservation Amidst COVID-19

By USW

Life has been a challenge for everyone these past two years. COVID-19 has made every little aspect different and difficult. Much like everyone else, I too, had to adapt and change to this new normal. The country’s situation was much better in 2020 than in 2021. As the virus started to spread, many rules and restrictions were imposed, our conservation work was hindered.  Meanwhile, the lockdowns enabled increases in poaching, elephant killings, human-elephant conflict and the like.

Against such a backdrop, I tried my very best to stop these unauthorized activities in and around the Udawalawe National Park, relying on the assistance of farmers, villagers, environmental organizations, the Wildlife Conservation Department, and the Forest Department. Both the Wetakhirakanda and the Dahaiyagala corridor were key area of focus for most of these activities. Over the years being in this region and my work outside of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, I have strengthened relationships with these stakeholders – especially the villagers and farmers – which allows me to be updated and quick to respond to any such activities.

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The Global Goals and Asian Elephant Conservation

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for people and the planet. In celebration of Earth Month, we broke down all 17 Global Goals to discover how each relates back to our mission to protect and conserve Asian elephants and their habitat.

Global Goal 1: No Poverty

In developing countries where elephants roam wild, like Sri Lanka, poverty and elephants can become intertwined. Small farmers can lose their entire livelihood overnight from an elephant raid, and an 8,000 pound animal walking through a farm can destroy everything in its path.

Finding ways for farmers to make a living alongside Asian elephants is key to the survival and success of both elephants and people. Our Coexistence Project studies both sides to develop innovative ways that farmers can maintain a steady income while living peacefully alongside wild Asian elephants.

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The Sumatran Elephant: Human-Elephant Conflict, Habitat Use and Home Ranges

By Gaius Wilson

The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is decreasing with approximately 1500 elephants left in the wild in fragmented populations. Deforestation, loss of habitat and poaching for ivory are amongst the major threats to the survival of this species.

The Leuser Ecosystem (which forms a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’) and Ulu Masen in Aceh, Sumatra are a stronghold for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and other critically endangered wildlife (e.g. orangutans, rhinoceros, and tigers). Both Leuser and Ulu Masen are essential for the survival and conservation of the Sumatran elephant, but much of their habitat falls outside the protected areas and in the most threatened lowland forests, creating elephant human contact. This makes it critical that effective mitigation strategies are developed that take into account elephant behaviour and the use of technology such as early warning systems to reduce conflict with the local communities.

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Deja Vu at Dahaiyagala

by SdS

Elephants at the Pokunutenna reservoir.

When we saw the destruction, we felt that strange sensation of history repeating. We’d been here before, a little over ten years ago.

Dahaiyagala sanctuary is a little-known, nondescript little strip of forest north of Udawalawe National Park, one of the two official “corridors” that supposedly links the park to the outside world. It is supposed to lead to another forest area, which conservationists and wildlife authorities refer to as Bogahapattiya. It also borders Pokunutenna village, a hotbed of unrest with respect to human-elephant conflict. Dahaiyagala represents unfinished business to the various parties, in very different ways.

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A Christmas Wish

By USW

Back in 2004, a male calf was born to the young female elephant, 458. The calf had baby tusks and this made his birth all the more special. He was named Therapuththa, or T458. We named him Therapuththa but labeled him as T458, following his mother’s ID, this is because it helps us keep track of him in the future when we catalog his movements, features and characteristics. His name, Therapuththa, was taken from ancient history: it is said that King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors protecting him and Therapuththa was one of the most loyal and endearing ones. The mother, 458, was often spotted with two other female elephants, who we have labelled as 040 and 041. After tracking this herd for so many years, we have unfortunately not seen any calves after Therapuththa. So he was quite special, besides being a tusker, which is rare in Sri Lanka.

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