Bengaluru-headquartered Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) founded by Prof Raman Sukumar of IISc and the late Prof Dhritikanta Lahiri Choudhury has been actively involved in elephant conservation since 1997.
ANCF and Bengaluru-based Dakshin Foundation have been working on a collaborative project called ‘Gaj Sanchar’ focusing on the Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong landscapes in Assam.
Every year when Kaziranga gets flooded the animals move towards Karbi Anglong hills. Issues of poaching and human-elephant conflicts have been rampant in this region.
Project GajSanchar-ASM was started with the thought of exploring the possibility of a holistic elephant-conservation plan at a landscape level, covering Kaziranga National Park, Karbi Anglong and nearby districts with the help of research and technology involving multiple stakeholders including the forest department. The Assam Forest Department wanted actionable insights and requested the team to look at the human-elephant conflicts in Golaghat district near Kaziranga and Hamren district near Karbi Anglong.
In Golaghat, the team saw scattered agricultural areas and fragmented landscapes. Animals coming in contact with humans was unavoidable in such a scenario. So, the team set a short term as well as a long-term approach towards the problem.
“The short-term goal was providing the elephants’ location using a GPS collar so that it acts as an early warning during the crop-harvesting season for the forest department, gram panchayat members and farmers. This helps in preparing for driving the elephants out of agri-fields,” says Amlan Aditya Goswamy, senior programme associate at Dakshin Foundation.
“The long -term goal is to collect a year-long data on the movement patterns of the elephant, their eating habits, and the social interface between elephants and people. This would help to limit the elephants to certain areas which is safe for the elephants as well as for people. This way you are preventing or suspending the contact between elephants and people.”
While the conservation narrative in India has primarily been around peaceful coexistence of humans and animals, Mr Goswamy disagrees with it.
“It’s a utopia. When you say coexistence, people imagine humans and elephants living in harmony, but that’s a delicate and precarious situation. The best strategy is to stop the contact between elephants and humans, thus preventing conflicts.”
Sanjay Ajanikar, programme director at ANCF adds, “We are looking at the movement patterns of elephant. For this we use technology and put GPS collars on elephants. The idea is to see their ranging pattern, how much forest as well as human habitation they’re using, how much time they’re spending in tea state or in crop raiding and so on.”
“For this movement, they use corridors. So, the second component would be to assess the corridor utilization through field work and using technology like camera traps.”
The next phase would be studying the elephant habitats and assessing their quality and suitability for elephants.
Mr. Goswamy explains, “We want to find out if habitats available to elephants are suitable or not. In Golaghat, for example, elephants are also living in tea estates which are not suitable habitats. These are conventional tea estates where they use pesticides and herbicides. These estates also have a lot of ‘nalas’ or drains where water and topsoil get collected. Elephants enjoy eating the grasses which grow there, but these grasses contain a lot of chemicals drained from the pesticides.”
Then comes the social component where the team would study the ‘human’ part of the conflict. It would look at disconnect between people’s beliefs and behaviour. In Golaghat, for example, there is a problem of people teasing the elephants, points out Mr. Goswamy.
“We will try to understand what drives such behaviors. If one can understand such behavioural drivers, a programme could be designed to address these issues.”
ANCF, which is more into scientific and technical data collection than implementation of projects on ground has been extensively involved in several projects with multiple state and central governments.
These include preservation of Brahmagiri- Tirunelli elephant corridor in collaboration with the Kerala state government and Wildlife Trust of India, assessment of carrying capacity of major elephant habitats in Odisha, survey of elephant corridors along railway tracks in north west Bengal to address the issue of elephant deaths in train accidents, management of human elephant conflict in Bengaluru-Hosur landscape using radio collars, camera traps and other traditional methods, preparation of a management plan for central Indian elephants landscape and so on.
ANCF also helped the Karnataka State Forest department to come up with an Elephant Atlas and has assisted other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Indonesia in issues related to elephant conservation. After associating with the Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala governments to estimate their elephant populations, the organization also played a key role in designing the Synchronised Elephant Census initiated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change under Project Elephant in 2017.