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New study identifies important elephant connectivity areas

The average size of protected areas in India is less than 300 sq. km, comparable to the average home range of a single elephant herd

October 06, 2021 08:43 am | Updated October 18, 2021 03:24 pm IST - GUWAHATI:

Connectivity is critical for the wide-ranging Asian elephant.

Connectivity is critical for the wide-ranging Asian elephant.

A new study has identified important elephant connectivity areas and found that the trunked animals prefer areas close to forests with low human population densities.

Divya Vasudev and Varun R. Goswami of Conservation Initiatives, a Northeast-based NGO, collected data from the people residing in the elephant landscapes and incorporated them in the newly-developed model called randomised shortest path (RSP).

“Connectivity is critical for species to survive into the future. This is especially so for species like the Asian elephant, our natural heritage animal,” Dr. Vasudev said.

Also read: South India’s famous Lantana elephants to raise their trunks for conservation fund

Elephants range widely, sometimes across hundreds of kilometres, to meet their immense food and water requirements. This is particularly true in the fragmented landscapes of the tropics, especially India where the average size of protected areas is less than 300 sq. km, comparable to the average home range of a single elephant herd, the study found.

“We are talking about a 20,000 sq. km region. Across such a large area, identifying the areas that are most critical for connectivity can be very useful,” Dr. Vasudev said.

Connectivity conservation was also important for other species, and identifying corridors for species such as the Asian elephant could potentially aid the movement of tigers, hog deer and other animals as well, she added.

Land-use change

“Human activity and land-use change have severely restricted animal movement globally, by 50-67% on an average,” Dr. Goswami, an elephant expert said, emphasising the need to identify animal corridors and ensure that wildlife connectivity was maintained in the face of ongoing environmental and land-use change.

The duo and other scientists at Conservation Initiatives addressed the wildlife connectivity issue using reports of elephant use outside protected areas.

“To our knowledge, this is the first application of RSP models in India, and likely the first time globally that citizen science data, which are relatively more feasible to collect, have been used with RSP connectivity models. This opens up opportunities for applying advanced connectivity models for species or landscapes otherwise limited by lack of appropriate data,” Dr. Vasudev said.

The study said it was not just important to identify where animals move, but also why they were restricted to moving through certain areas. It found that elephants preferred areas close to forests, with high vegetation cover and low human population densities.

Significantly, this finding adds to the authors’ previous research that vegetation and wooded areas even on private lands can facilitate critical animal movement.

“Whether we are talking about small-scale movement, or regional connectivity across tens or even hundreds of kilometres, adding vegetation cover to private lands aids connectivity,” Dr. Goswami said.

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