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! 

Trialing Camera Traps 

We’re partnering with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand to trial the potential of alternative crops to support farmers living with elephants. We’re excited to bring the first news from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


by Brooke Friswold

The team in Thailand has been busy over the last two months – especially while director and founder of Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH) Antoinette van de Water has been in country! With the start of data collection for a subset of five BTEH rented lemongrass plots and ten community-owned pineapple plots on the horizon, equipment and methodology trialing has begun. Data collection via camera trapping is set to begin in mid-May to record baseline elephant behavior in control and experimental plots for the HECTAARE project and for Brooke Friswold’s PhD research with King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in partnership with BTEH and HECTAARE. 

The first camera trap was placed behind BTEH project manager David Owen’s house who lives on the border of the national park and the agricultural area of the village. David regularly sees elephants leave the national park at night and walk through a pathway behind their house to enter the agricultural fields.

On the first night of camera trialing we placed the camera trap (Bushnell L20 Low Glow Trail Cameras) as a means to trial the camera trap for various evaluations with the intention of leaving it there long term once data collection starts. To test how sensitive the camera traps were, metered transect tape was laid up to 100 feet from the camera with the intention of generating movement at ten foot intervals to see what triggered the camera. We also wanted to test the camera’s range of view and how well it performed in the dark. The camera was placed in a protective steel box to keep it safe from weathering and human tampering and fastened it to a tree with cables. In the future after collecting more camera trap footage and trials, we will continue to adjust height (likely between 1.5m to 3m for camera trapping elephants), angle, settings etc.  

The camera traps and transect tape were erected around dusk and the group was going to head back to David’s house (which can be seen close by in the distance) for dinner and return to the tree to start trialing the camera traps once dark. Before leaving it was briefly discussed if the camera trap should be turned on but decided against it as it would still be typically too early for the elephants to come out (they like to come out well after 10pm). David also mentioned that they hadn’t seen the elephants in quite some time.

The group are about to head to the camera trap following dinner and sunset, when we hear an elephant bellowing loudly from the edge of the national park just near the camera trap. The elephants in this area have been known to let out a loud roar or shriek before exiting the national park. The head of a juvenile bull is soon seen sticking out from the foliage of the national park edge and emerging along the pathway right in front of our camera trap! We all watch excitedly as the elephant walks and expresses a variety of behaviors directly in front of the camera trap. A nearby pineapple farmer begins throwing firecrackers at the elephant, a common tactic used by local farmers and park rangers to scare the elephants back into the national park. 

When elephants emerge from the national park the surrounding farming areas erupt into firecrackers, shouts, spotlights, and rangers zooming around on motorcycles – making it feel slightly like a war zone at times with the remnants of the firecrackers seen the next day. The planting of alternative crops that are less palatable to elephants, such as BTEH’s Tom Yum project; has the potential to reduce the stress that is evident in both human and elephant entities during these nightly confrontations. It is one of the multiple tactics that BTEH is utilizing in this area to attempt to increase human elephant coexistence. 

What a view of the action!

Using our spotlight and voices we attempt to encourage the elephant to return to the forest, however he ignores all deterrents and heads further from the forest in a hurried and frantic manner. As the excitement settles down it dawns on us…the camera trap was not on. Had it been on we would have captured behavioral data within a half hour of putting up our camera trap! 

Our first attempt at trialing camera traps came with a valuable lesson learned: always turn the camera trap on. Always.


Related Posts

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

Home to large numbers of Asian elephants, India’s rural population carries the daily risk of human-elephant conflict (HEC) especially in places where resources are nature-based. The practice of monoculture (planting only one type of crop in a given area), in regions like Karnataka is found to increase the frequency of HEC which can have a major negative impact on local sentiments and behavior towards conservation[2,3]. In relation to this, the country is reported to incur an estimated one million hectares of destroyed crops and 10,000 to 15,000 damaged properties yearly[4]. While these losses are often used as the basis for calculating economic impacts, there exists an irreversible casualty usually unaccounted for: human life. 

In India, the country with the largest number of Asian elephants, HEC kills 500 humans and 100 elephants every year[5]. This retaliatory elephant killing is a serious threat in conservation and is a driving factor to the decline in population[3]. A study by Gulati et al. (2019) encompassing 5000 households in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra examined damages to property and human casualties as a result of HWC[4].  Among the animal species (pig, nilgai, elephant, leopard, tiger, wolf and others) evaluated in the study, the damages caused by elephants amounted to a fifth of a farmer’s yearly crop income. Furthermore, these damages were 600 to 900 times more than that of a farmer experiencing losses from other herbivores, namely the pig and nilgai. The study’s authors therefore concluded that the elephant brought about more casualties than other species included in the study. In addition, human death only occurred in two reserves out of five, namely Nagarahole and Bandipur, but the calculated cost from the risk of injury or death from HEC already amounted to $42,236. While the Indian government provides monetary compensation for human injury and death, this only amounts to an average of $3,234 for mortality and $103 for injuries across the four states.

Damages from Asian elephants are 600 to 900 times more than that of other herbivores namely the pig and nilgai.[4] Photo by Sauhrab Mishra on Unsplash.

The current status of HEC in India tells us that much remains to be done. At present,  negative incidents seem inevitable due to the increasing number of settlements near protected areas. A long-term goal of conservationists is to enable coexistence between humans and elephants. To aid this effort, the United Nations Environment Programme and World Wildlife Fund have published The Six Elements of HWC Management[3]

  • Understanding the conflict : Measures such as research on hotspot mapping and community attitudes to understand the context for conflict.
  • Mitigation: Lessening the aftereffects of HWC through compensation, alternative livelihoods, employment etc.
  • Response: Tackling ongoing HWC through organized teams, mechanisms, and standard operating procedures. 
  • Prevention: Preventing the occurrence of HWC through devices such as fences, detection tools, warning signals etc.
  • Policy: Involvement of government and authorities by creating management measures and mechanisms. 
  • Monitoring: Assessing the efficiency of HWC interventions through acts like data collection. 

At the time of writing, Karnataka has initiated an early warning system signal through text messages, online messaging applications, and sign boards which significantly reduced deaths and injuries a year into its launch in 2018[6]. In 2020 the government of India has also launched Surakhsya[7], a compendium on best practices of HEC management, with a positive outlook towards supporting efforts to minimize conflict and reaffirm the protection of elephants by mobilizing resources supported by the government.

References:

1Neupane, D., Kwon, Y., Risch, T. S., Williams, A. C., & Johnson, R. L. (2019). Habitat use by Asian elephants: Context matters. Global Ecology and Conservation, 17, e00570. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00570

2Ramanan, SS. (2019, February 14). Landscape-level approach necessary to address human-elephant conflicts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/landscape-level-approach-necessary-to-address-human-elephant-conflicts-63242

3United Nations Environment Programme & World Wildlife Fund. (2021, July 8). A Future for All: The Need for Human-Wildlife Coexistence. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/future-all-need-human-wildlife-coexistence

4Gulati, S., Karanth, K. K., Le, N. A., & Noack, F. (2021). Human casualties are the dominant cost of human–wildlife conflict in India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(8), e1921338118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1921338118

5Nandi, J. (2020, August 10). At least 500 persons are killed in human-elephant conflict every year: Environment min data. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/at-least-500-persons-are-killed-in-human-elephant-conflict-every-year-environment-min-data/story-MbLQNN5Snm22W6gC32Of0I.html

6Niyogi, DG. (2019, February 21). Early elephant warning systems help, but are short-term measures: Experts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/early-elephant-warning-systems-help-but-are-short-term-measures-experts-63311

7Fernandes, B. (2020, August 12). World Elephant Day: Union Min Prakash Javadekar launches portal on human-elephant conflict. Republic World. https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/union-min-prakash-javadekar-launches-human-elephant-conflict-portal.html

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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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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Support Asian Elephant Conservation with Gifts that Give Back

Consider unique gifts and treats that give back! Whether for yourself or that special someone, our Elephant Store has the perfect gift for everyone on your list from notebooks and weekend totes to performance shirts and cozy blankets. Best of all, your purchase will directly support our work to protect endangered Asian elephants and their habitats.

For the Wildlife Lover…

Symbolically adopt a wild Asian elephant with our Elephant Adoption Kit. Each animal available for adoption represents a real individual from the population in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka. Adopters receive a Certificate of Adoption, exclusive information and updates about the elephant, and the option to add an adorable plush. 

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Can Lemongrass Help Reduce Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka?

By Salik Ansar  

So-called human-elephant conflict has been a recurring issue in Sri Lanka for years. With no viable and permanent solution, different organizations and groups come up with their own plan and methods of dealing with this dilemma. Some, of course, favor humanity at the cost of the wildlife.

With farmers constantly suffering from crop raids and elephants being subjected to agonizing forms of repellents, Trunks & Leaves dedicated our energy and resources to finding a suitable solution to this issue. Our aim is to achieve peaceful coexistence between people and elephants by developing sustainable agricultural models that are compatible with elephants and, at the same time, securing the livelihoods of farmers. We believe that the solution to this is to understand the problem from both angles: the elephants and the farmers.

A few months ago, we partnered with HDDeS Pvt Ltd, one of the largest exporters of spices, essences and floral extracts in Sri Lanka, to test if incense sticks can deter elephants. This project has been set back due to the pandemic but is still ongoing. But we are now exploring ways to develop alternate sources of income for farmers who lose crops to elephants.

The climate and landscape of the Udawalawe region are fertile for plants like lemongrass, and the value of this plant has increased due to the commercial importance of aromatic oil. This is a product HDDeS needs, and research shows that it is not preferred by elephants. Thus, Trunks & Leaves and HDDeS Pvt. Ltd are interested in trying lemongrass as a supplementary crop to provide additional income which can hopefully offset losses from elephants.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) is an aromatic and tall sedge that grows in many parts of tropical and sub-tropical Southeast Asia and Africa.
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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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