Conference

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.150 Published online 6 November 2014

Genetic profiling, technology to minimise human-elephant conflicts

Neha Sinha

New age genetic tools and communication technology could be effectively used to resolve human-elephant conflicts, a niggling issue for conservation planners. Researchers attending a conference on conservation science recently felt that these modern tools could minimise clashes between the pachyderms and humans in traditionally conflict-prone areas.

Presenting some interesting studies during the Student Conference on Conservation Science held at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (24-28 September 2014), a group researchers showed how they have been using genetic studies to understand elephant herd composition. The researchers from Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research and Indian Institute of Science; and WWF-India reported that understanding herd composition may provide important clues to avoid such conflicts1.

Human-elephant conflicts have been a cause of concern for conservation planners.
 © M. Ananda Kumar
The team genotyped 101 elephants from their dung samples to ascertain the composition of herds in human vicinity and in occasional conflict with people. They found that in high conflict areas, such as Alur in Karnataka, elephant herds assembled in non-traditional ways, with small discrete groups colonising the area. While typically elephant herds are matriarchal, assemblages in this area had both males and females.

"Though there were a few unrelated females, we also found family structures in the group. There seems to be independent colonisation of dispersed female elephants in the area,” one of the researchers Subhankar Chakraborty said.

From their genetic data, the team suggests that if elephants are to be removed from this area, their social organisation has to be taken into consideration. “Also, the family units will have to be retained during translocation to reduce social stress,” he adds. The findings show that while decisions related to elephant conservation have often considered human agency and convenience, conservation practice may also need to consider elephant sociology, family structures and memory.

Another study of elephants in Tamil Nadu’s conflict-riddled Valparai area looked at elephant physiology and behaviour to conclude that the animals who were chased or faced antagonistic experiences with humans were more stressed than those who were not. The researchers from National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore; LaCONES, Hyderabad and Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore carried out physiological analysis from dung samples and behavioural observations of 71 elephants in human-dominated as well as natural habitats.

Significantly, their research also found that elephants were able to coexist in human dominated landscapes and did not show higher levels of stress than elephants in more natural landscapes. But specific instances of chasing away the elephants was a source of stress for the animals, and the animal seemed to remember these experiences.

“Through behavioural observations it also appears that elephants retain memories of bad experiences which they relate to the place of occurrence,” wildlife biologist Mavatur Ananda Kumar said.

Loss of life and property can be minimised by alerting people in conflict zones.
© Ganesh Raghunathan, NCF
People are generally caught off-guard during a conflict – and this poses an eternal challenge for conservation practice and planning. “In the last 20 years, 41 people have lost their lives after encountering elephants in these landscapes. Out of these 41, 36 were not aware of the elephants,” Kumar said.

To avoid such confrontations, Kumar and his team started the Elephant Information Network, using technology as a tool. Each time a herd was sighted, bulk phone messages were sent to people in the vicinity. “Earlier, we used cable TV to inform people about herd movement, but with the advent of satellite TV, that was phased out. We then started using bulk SMS service, which had really good results since it is far more personal,” he said.

Additionally, mobile phone-operated red LED lights were flashed in 24 locations when elephants were in the immediate vicinity. “Technology can be used effectively to overcome such critical lack of information on herd movement,” Kumar added.


References

1. Chakraborty, S. et al. Using genetic analysis to estimate population size, sex ratio, and social organization in an Asian elephant population in conflict with humans in Alur, southern India. Conserv. Genet. 15, 897-907 (2014)