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Jumbo Strides: Using tech to mitigate human-animal conflict

Understanding the frontier elephants
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Frontier Elephants is a collaborative effort by like-minded people from FERAL, NIAS, and IISc, who with the help of Forest Departments, work towards conserving elephants in human-dominated landscapes

August 17, 2023 09:00 am | Updated August 18, 2023 09:21 am IST

Elephants near human habitats, on the other hand, use large water bodies as refuge sites.

Elephants near human habitats, on the other hand, use large water bodies as refuge sites. | Photo Credit: Nishant Srinivasiah

Elephants are not usually nocturnal beings. But researchers have been observing that those found close to human-inhabited areas venture out at night when people go to sleep. 

They have been also showing behavioural changes in their feeding pattern and refuge sites. Elephants usually prefer to be deep inside the forest and feed for around 18 hours a day. Elephants near human habitats, on the other hand, use large water bodies as refuge sites in the absence of forests around them and feed on nutritious crops for four to five hours at night.  

Frontier Elephants is a collaborative effort by like-minded people from the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL), National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), who with the help of Forest Departments, work towards conserving elephants in human-dominated landscapes by studying their behaviours and adaptation methods and coming up with mitigation strategies accordingly. The team works in an area of about 10,000 square kms spanning the Eastern Ghats elephant landscape. 

“Our core work is based on the behaviour of the individual elephants. We wanted to look at how these individuals are adapting and rapidly changing in human-dominated landscapes in the larger context of the Anthropocene where humans have probably had the most impact they’ve ever had on mammals, animals, and biodiversity. And we want to know how it’s impacting one of the largest mammals,” said Dr. Nishant Srinivasiah, post-doctoral fellow at IISc. Srinivasaiah also works as part of Frontier Elephants and has been associating with FERAL and NIAS on the conservation of elephants since 2014. 

According to a study by Nishant Srinivasaiah, Srinivas Vaidyanathan, Raman Sukumar and Anindya Sinha, increased availability of nutritious crops and forest cover provided by plantations outside protected forest areas has prompted the pachyderms to venture outside to the peri urban areas. Termed the ‘rurban elephants’ in the report, these elephants have interestingly adapted very quickly to the new anthropogenic settings. 

“While studing the behaviour and decision-making in these elephants we realised that a lot of those were extremely crucial in human-elephant conflict mitigation. So, we started working with communities,” he added.  

Along with farmers, the team has been co-creating mitigation strategies that are cheap, easy to implement and produce good results. Dr. Srinivasaiah explains with an example. 

Instances of elephants breaking fences around the farmer’s land to get to the crops are common. But what if the farmer builds the fence a little inside the property leaving a strip of crops outside for the elephants?  

The farmers loved the idea, says Dr. Srinivasiah. A part of their crops was already being eaten by monkeys, birds and rats, and they didn’t mind sharing it with one more species, he adds. 

The team is working with different stakeholders to work out similar mitigation strategies that could reduce instances of conflict by reducing the exposure of humans to elephants. 

They have been working with government agencies to see if electricity supply for the crops can be moved to the daytime. Construction and use of toilets is being encouraged so that people don’t venture out to the fields in the night or early morning hours to relieve themselves. Early morning milking of cattle and transportation of milk to the collection centres also expose villagers to the elephants who are returning to the forests and the team is looking at what can be done about it.  

“It is simple things like that, but there is a lot of science and data and conversation happening. And these are very context specific. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” Dr. Srinivasiah says.  

“Our long-term observations continue. It is all so interconnected and that’s what’s so lovely about elephants. They touch the lives of so many people. While we develop and grow, it is very important that we also acknowledge the presence of another large sentient being among us which might be impacted by our activities.” 

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