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How do Asian elephants survive in fragmented and unprotected landscapes?

A new study in Tropical Conservation Science has found that Asian elephants living in a combination of fragmented forests and agricultural landscapes still depend on natural landscapes—rivers and forests—for survival. Following two herds of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the Valparai plateau among the Anamalai Hills of India for three years, researchers found that the elephants spent much of their time, relative to their availability, near rivers and amid forest fragments. When they entered agricultural landscapes they preferred Eucalyptus and coffee to tea.

One third of the researchers’ elephant locations were along rivers or in natural forest, even though these landscapes made up less than 5 percent of the landscape. Elephants were located in tea plantations 32 percent of the time, and Eucalyptus 17 percent and coffee 13 percent of the time. However, given that tea plantations cover most of the region, the elephants actually avoided tea as much as possible according to the researchers: most of the elephants’ time spent in tea plantations was composed of nighttime crossings of these vast landscapes.

Study subjects: Asian elephants roam the Valparai plateau in India.

“Among plantation crops, coffee and Eucalyptus seemed to be more important habitats than tea in areas devoid of natural vegetation,” the authors explain. “Availability of tree canopy along with secondary vegetation and grass growth in plantations of coffee and Eucalyptus appeared to provide cover and fodder for elephants. Moreover, as coffee is a seasonal fruit crop and Eucalyptus plantations are felled for fuel only once in seven years, elephants may use these areas more due to the lower human activity, unlike in tea plantations that witness more intensive, year-round tea-leaf harvest.”

The authors provide a number of suggestions to ensure elephant survival in such fractured landscapes, including conservation of the remaining natural landscapes.

“In highly fragmented landscapes, such as the Valparai plateau, forest fragments and riparian vegetation play important roles in the ecology of elephants. Conserving these patches and protecting them from further degradation is crucial for conservation of elephants as they are highly dependent on natural vegetation despite its patchy and clumped distribution,” the authors write. They add that logging should not occur within 20 meters of rivers, allowing the elephants room to forage.

The study further recommends promoting coffee and Eucalyptus over tea plantations in the region by “preventing conversion of plantation habitats such as coffee with shade tree cover to tea plantations.”

Asian elephants are currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Conservationists believe the global population has been cut in half in three elephant generations largely due to habitat loss and poaching.

CITATION: Kumar, M. A., Mudappa, D. and Raman, T. R. S. 2010. Asian elephant Elephas maximus habitat use and ranging in fragmented rainforest and plantations in the Anamalai Hills, India Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 3 (2)143-158.

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