Wild Asian elephants in northeast India travel hundreds of miles in search of food, water, and mates. They have likely moved through the vast floodplains of the Brahmaputra River in the Indian state of Assam for centuries. However, more than 65% of the habitat north of the river has been lost in the past few decades to agriculture and settlements, and conflict between humans and elephants has been steadily increasing ever since. Human-elephant conflict leading to the destruction of crops and property as well as human death and injury have resulted in retaliatory killing of elephants.
From 2010-2019, 761 people and 249 elephants were killed in Assam as a direct consequence of human-elephant conflict. This conflict translates to the severe psychological trauma of living in constant fear—disproportionately impacting communities that often face systemic barriers, have incomes well below the poverty line, and less access to economic opportunities—and further underscores the need for coexistence of humans and elephants.
WWF-India works with local communities to manage and reduce this problem by providing solar-fencing and flashlights and forming voluntary community response teams to safely enable elephants to travel through human-occupied areas.
While it’s important to manage and prevent conflicts in real time, it’s also imperative to understand what is driving the conflict and why elephants are visiting human-occupied areas. This may be because, of (1) scarcity of resources in forest areas, which could be pushing elephants out of their habitat and (2) attraction to human resources like crops, which are more nutritionally dense than wild vegetation.
In order to find out to what degree conflict is occurring because of these factors, WWF-India will be fitting GPS-enabled collars on wild elephants to better understand the animals’ basic movement ecology. Collaring includes first identifying a suitable candidate (generally an adult elephant), darting it with a sedative (a sedative takes about 20 minutes to become effective and can last for about an hour depending on the elephant’s age, size, stress level, etc.), and fitting a collar around the elephant’s neck, before the animal is revived. Once fitted, the GPS signal from the collar will relay information on the elephant’s whereabouts.
This piece of technology will provide us with a nuanced understanding of how elephants are using the landscape and habitat, and to what extent. For instance, from a management perspective, if we find that they are spending a lot of time in the hills, then preemptively working towards protecting that area will be of conservation importance. In addition, the team will, attach an accelerometer to the collar to understand what exactly an elephant is doing at any given time (running, walking, eating, drinking, etc.). This is the first time that accelerometer technology is being tested on Asian elephants.
Data from the accelerometer, combined with data from satellite imagery, and on-ground surveys will help us better understand resource availability and key habitat areas, which in turn informs targeted conservation interventions. If elephants leave forest areas due to a lack of availability of food, conservation efforts can concentrate on regeneration and restoration efforts of degraded areas in the region. And if crops are attracting elephants, then we would focus on building stronger deterrents and barriers around human habitation.
WWF is planning to collar five elephants this Fall as part of this project, which promises to provide data to improve and protect the lives of both humans and elephants sharing this space.