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.


Habitat loss and fragmentation afflicts elephant habitats which can result in loss of genetic variation and reduction in gene flow that could impact their fitness and survival over the long term. Assessing genetic diversity and on-going gene flow between and within these sub-populations can provide insights into how these populations can be conserved. Rahul De, the first author carried out the DNA analyses using 14 microsatellite markers to genetically characterise 169 faecal samples collected by the various co-authors. With the guidance and technical help of Dr. S. P. Goyal, his supervisor and Dr. Reeta Sharma he identified three distinct genetic clusters: the NW, NE and the ECI-SI. This last cluster suggests that these now disjunct elephant populations of the southern and Eastern-Central ranges were once contiguous. However, within each cluster there was significant genetic structuring at finer scales which could be attributed mostly to recent anthropogenic land use changes. Also, elephants being highly intelligent with complex sociality, could prefer mating with populations that are further apart, than close by, thereby creating genetic differentiation at local scales, as we had found in certain cases.

Another lone male

Our study shows that the main concerns are the ongoing genetic differentiation indicating increasing population discontinuity, and the moderate levels of genetic diversity. This shows that although India supports around 60% of the global population of Asian elephants, the risk of further fragmentation and loss of habitat, and the impact of climate change, could affect the long-term viability elephants in India. Therefore, management interventions to maintain intact and connected habitats to enable population growth and movement could help ameliorate these effects.

Mother-calf pair at Dooars (Northern West-Bengal)

References:
De R, Sharma R, Davidar P, Arumugam N, Sedhupathy A, Puyravaud JP, Parida J, Digal DK, Kanagaraj R, Kakati K, Nigam P, Williams AC, Habib B, Goyal SP. (2021) Pan-India population genetics signifies the importance of habitat connectivity for wild Asian elephant conservation. Global Ecology and Conservation, vol. 32. Doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2021. e01888.

Mongabay article Corridors with high human activity may not ease elephant connectivity: study

Kanagaraj R, Araujo MB, Barman R, Davidar P, De R, Digal DK, Gopi GV, Johnsingh AJ, Kakati K, Kramer‐Schadt S, Lamichhane BR. (2019) Predicting range shifts of Asian elephants under global change. Diversity and Distributions. ;25(5):822-38.

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.

One farmer told us how an elephant came through her farm the night before bleeding and showed us the blood trail – this information was passed on to the local rangers to look out for an injured elephant, highlighting another important use of the camera traps.

For erecting the camera traps we developed a camera trapping apparatus of cementing a steel pole into a tire and then securing the camera traps into specially made metal boxes and then securing them with a lock. 

The process involved using multiple people to carry the (very) heavy poles to an area where the farm plots could be clearly seen and often oriented to face the most likely area of entry – as dictated by the farmers.   

Many of the farms had one or two nearby elephant routes they take to enter and exit the farms. The elephants almost exclusively enter the farms at night from the nearby Kui Buri National Park which borders the village. Kui Buri National Park is also only one of two areas where you can join safaris to see elephants in the wild – making Ruam Thai an interesting area, in that the local community experiences benefits of elephant ecotourism but also challenges regarding crop raiding elephants. 

The first recording of elephant footage for this research was what looked like an adult bull who passed along a pineapple farm using an elephant pathway that the farmer had identified to us, which is also a small dirt road.

The cameras will stay up for another two months continuously during this rainy season and then for another two months in the dry season and we are very excited to see what else we are able to capture! 

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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Bees are Helping Thailand’s Elephants and Farmers to Peacefully Coexist – Bee Fences in Asia Part 2

A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand

Guest post by Antoinette van de Water

Beehive fences in Thailand. Photo: BTEH

Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.

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Can bees help farmers in Sri Lanka deter elephants from their crops? Bee fences in Asia – Part 1.

The tiny bee vs. the world’s largest land mammal…

Guest post by Kylie Butler

Elephants outside Wasgamuwa National Park / Apis cerana bees being transferred into a hive (Photos: Kylie Butler)

Over a decade ago now, Dr. Lucy King developed the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent, capitalising on a then-recent discovery that African elephants avoided African honeybees (Vollrath & Douglas-Hamilton, 2002). The beehive fence is a relatively simple, inexpensive deterrent, aiming to be a tool that communities can use independently following set-up. The basic premise is that a series of beehives surround an area to be protected from elephants, and if elephants attempt to enter, they will disturb the beehives, causing the colonies to swarm (refer to King et al. 2009; 2017 for more details). It should come as no surprise, that the success of multiple beehive fence trials in Africa, led to a curiosity as to whether this technique could also help Asian communities experiencing comparable levels of crop-raiding.

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When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence. Continue reading

Call Combinations Differ Among Living Elephants

The living elephants – Asian elephant, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.

Guest post by Michael Pardo

Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.

I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading

The Patels Visit Udawalawe

Guest post by Yogi & Nikita Patel

We traveled to Sri Lanka to work with Trunks & Leaves in support of schools surrounding the Udawalawe National Park. We first arrived in Negombo, Sri Lanka where we were met by Deepani, who works with Trunks & Leaves, and her friend Jocelyn. We traveled by car to Udawalawe where we were joined by Sameera, the project coordinator. We visited the first Montessori preschool, operated by Sameera’s sister, Chathurika. She was gracious in showing us the school, which was closed for the holidays. She had been hard at work painting furniture and cleaning the classroom and play area for her 18 students. Her school, which is attached to her home, is surrounded by many fruit trees. Her family members supported her passion for educating children in her town.

Our next stop was school teacher Shiromi’s home. We met with Shiromi who greeted us with her family and offered the most amazing homecooked treats. We chatted about her work in the village and her school, Dimuthu preschool. We met with Shiromi again the following day, where we observed the children in her classroom. The parents were very supportive of Shiromi and came to the school with their children even though they were supposed to be on holiday. We got to sing and dance the “hokey pokey”.

Deepani, Yogi and Sameera with the first cohort of preschool teachers whose schools received support from Trunks & Leaves’ sponsors (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

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Social Structure in South Indian Elephants

Guest post by Nandini Shetty

A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project

India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.

I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading

Elephant Gardens

Guest post by Jessie Panazzolo

A camera trap photo shows Sumatran elephants trekking through lush regenerating forest.

I had always been told the same thing over and over again from my schooling, the scientific papers I read, and people I met growing up. This was that once primary rainforest was gone and removed from the Earth, it could not grow again. I was told that the forest needed a constant cycling of nutrients to flourish. That without the trees blanketing the ground in leaf litter the soil would be devoid of any nutrients needed to create such rich life again.

I had also been told that important forest dwellers such as the Sumatran Orangutan would only find a home in thick established forests. I had read in many different papers that Sumatran Orangutans, unlike their Bornean cousins, never spent any time walking on the forest floor in fear of the predatory Sumatran Tiger.

Considering all this, you could imagine my surprise and awe when I found myself in the middle of a brand new Sumatran rainforest, barely five years old, seeing orangutans walk the ground in front of my very eyes. It was then that I knew that anything was possible. Continue reading