‘Predominance of young elephants a reason for problematic interactions with humans in Gudalur’

A peculiar combination of factors in the Gudalur landscape, including a predominance of young male elephants could be the one of the variables driving a high number of problematic interactions between humans and elephants in the region.

After identifying and observing individual elephants over 3 years, researchers and Forest Department officials working in the landscape have found that a majority of problematic human-elephant interactions in Gudalur involve a small fraction of young male elephants between 15-30 years of age.

They believe that the large number of young males, with fewer older males and female-led herds, along other behavioral factors could be behind the relatively high level of aggression towards people as well as other elephants.

The contention is that these elephants, if managed through this phase of their lives, could become more docile and manageable as they grow older. The implications for this could mean more consideration of factors such as age when dealing with “problem” elephants, especially when it comes to making a decision about capturing them and turning them into camp elephants.

Tarsh Thekaekara, co-founder of the Shola Trust, who has studied elephant behavior in Gudalur division, and who is assisting the Forest Department in managing human-elephant interactions in the region, said that in 2016, there were a total of 107 elephants recorded in Gudalur.

Of these elephants, the population did not show a ‘normal distribution’ across multiple age groups, but was skewed towards higher numbers of young adult elephants (between 15 and 30 years) and calves, with fewer juveniles and older elephants.

In the landscape, older adult males were practically non-existent, with very few individuals remaining, forest officials added. Ageing wild elephants were complex and subjective, and they only used age classes rather than exact numbers.

“Most parts of India experienced rampant hunting or poaching of male elephants for ivory up to the 1980s, resulting in highly skewed male to female ratios of up to one male for every ten females or even one male for twenty female elephants. Being long lived animals, these ratios take a long time to change, and are only now balancing out.”

District Forest Officer (Gudalur division), Kommu Omkaram, said the young male elephants from adjoining Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, once they reach sexual maturity, are driven out of the herd, and may be moving into Gudalur.

“In Gudalur, unusually, there seem to be a higher number of males than females (1: 0.7), particularly young males, in the age group of 15-30,” he added.

“One of the reasons for more aggression from the young males could be due to this. Since there is no clear dominance hierarchy, it could lead to more fights between elephants and more problematic interactions with people,” he added.

“In summary, the Gudalur elephant population consists of largely adults and calves, and a high number of young males. Managing or living with these young males in the Gudalur landscape is going to be a key challenge. Varma et al. (2010) have shown that in captive elephants, the majority of attacks on mahouts occur with male elephants around 30 years old, indicating that older males are perhaps less aggressive. This could mean a more peaceful coexistence in a few decades, but what will happen in the interim is less clear,” said Dr. Thekaekara in his thesis, ‘Living with Elephants, Living with People: Understanding the complexities of human-elephant interactions in the Nilgiris, South India.’

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 5:56:00 AM |

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