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Appreciating elephant individuality: a new approach to preventing conflicts with humans

Elephant and human conflict is a common issue in India, exacerbated by habitat loss. Photo courtesy of Nishant Srinivasaiah.
Elephant and human conflict is a common issue in India, exacerbated by habitat loss. Photo courtesy of Nishant Srinivasaiah.

To prevent conflicts between humans and elephants in developed areas, a new study shows there is much to learn from analyzing Asian elephant behavior at the individual level as opposed to population studies.

Researchers have traditionally interpreted elephant behavior at the population level, looking for behavior patterns among elephants of similar ages, group sizes, and genders. Today, field researchers in India are studying elephant behavior at the individual level. Their goal is to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of individual elephants in the hopes of predicting their behavior.

Nishant Srinivasaiah, of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and lead author of the study, told that it is vital “to get to know our elephants more intimately than ever before and, more importantly, to shift our focus from a population to include its individuals as well.”

In their recent paper, the authors argue that only by acknowledging elephant individuality can realistic plans for their conservation be created.

Human and elephant conflict zone

The Eastern Ghats landscape, near Bangalore, India, includes Bannerghatta National Park and is the world’s largest remaining scrub forest. This area is home to the biggest intact Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) population in the world. Nishant’s field study was spread across 184 square kilometers, including Bannerghatta and the surrounding human-dominated landscape.

Field work. Photo courtesy of Nishant Srinivasaiah.

Conflict between elephants and humans is a common problem here because the park is surrounded on three sides by increasing human development, including over 120 settlements within and around park boundaries. In many areas, humans are encroaching on elephant habitat and blocking access to the resources that elephants need for survival. Despite conflict prevention measures such as elephant-proof trenches, electric fencing, and rubble walls, run-ins occur regularly and sometimes tragically. Within Bannerghatta, two people have been killed and two injured by wild elephants, with two elephants killed or poached in retaliation, on average each year since 1997.

Conflicts often arise when elephants raid crops, 900 a year on average, resulting in the Forest Department spending about $42,982 (US) to compensate for life and property damages, according to the study. With such high stakes, preventing such conflicts is a top priority for conservationists and park managers.

Elephants by flashlight

To anticipate such conflicts and learn more about decision-making processes in elephants, Nishant and his team spent over 600 hours observing elephants, whom they grew to know personally. Observations were conducted on 60 individual elephants, either in herds, all-male groups, or isolation. Behavioral states recorded included feeding, resting, moving, bathing/drinking, and social interactions. The researchers accompanied the Elephant Driving Squad (EDS), a “first line of defense” team of park wildlife managers, as they tracked the elusive, sometimes crop-raiding elephants, with flashlights, on foot, through electric fences, ditches, barbed wires, ploughed land, thickets, and plantations. The researchers divided field survey work into three sessions, including night watches. Such exhaustive field work is necessary because “scientists can predict elephant behavior [only] as accurately as they understand them,” says Nishant.

Oldest bull in the study area known as VKT. Photo courtesy of Nishant Srinivasaiah.

“On one particular night in mid-winter, an all-male group of three individuals…decided to feed on jackfruit and paddy grown in a nearby village,” he says, describing a common incident of elephant-human conflict. “[The elephants] had been crop-raiding for quite a few nights now. On this particular night, however, the EDS, fed up with these individuals, were all the more determined to drive them back into the forest from the crop fields.”

The elephants were caught moving “from one jackfruit tree to another, standing under each tree in turn, shaking it vigorously until the fruits fell, crushing the fruits underfoot and eating them silently.” Nervously, the EDS team began pursuit.

“Once the EDS caught up with them, the chase began. Crackers were burst and shots fired in the air to drive the elephants back into the forest. The elephants were quick to react; they started moving immediately away from the source of disturbance but not towards the forest, however, but away from it! It looked like these individuals too were a determined lot. They would move just far enough to be out of flashlight coverage and stand silent but alert, till the threat passed. Once picked [up] by the lights, the EDS members would chase the elephants.”

Such chases could go all night, but on this particular night, the elephants successfully eluded the team, proving that those who track elephants must be ready for anything and stay alert.

Nishant described his research with elephants as a thrilling experience, telling, “Imagine tracking a four-ton black animal, which could be considered ‘dangerous’ with its uncanny ability to move silently and disappear into thin air, through bushes and crop fields, with nothing more than flashlights and on foot!”

Living among elephants

An all male elephant group runs into a banana plantation. Photo courtesy of Nishant Srinivasaiah.

Nishant is not new to the observation and study of elephants. First seeing them in Indian national parks, he was an elephant watcher from an early age. As the youngest member of the Mysore Zoological Gardens Youth Club he worked as a caretaker and observed elephants for hours. He was introduced to the world of wild elephants and people living alongside them when he volunteered with A Rocha India, a non-profit conservation organization working towards human-elephant conflict mitigation in Bannerghatta. His experience with elephants led to his selection for the post graduate program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation run by the Wildlife Conservation Society–India Program and The National Centre for Biological Sciences at Bangalore, where he learned the conservation techniques employed in this study.

After six months of observation from Dec 2009 through May 2010, gathering data on individuals, and bearing witness to many conflicts with humans, Nishant gained a deep appreciation of elephant individuality. He believes that many of the decisions elephants make, some of which lead to conflicts, can only be explained on the idiosyncratic individual level.

“Elephants are a lot like us, individuals seem to have personalities, have strong social bonds and go through various stages of growth in life just as we do,” he says.

For local residents living in or near Bannerghatta, close encounters with elephants are a routine part of life. Despite the threats to crops posed by elephants, Nishant’s work to understand elephants was made possible in part by the support of people living near the human and elephant conflict zone. He relied on local elephant trackers and amiable residents who helped the researchers to locate elephant individuals and herds. His frequent conversations with residents, some of whom regularly hosted him at their homes, allowed him to more fully appreciate the nuanced, individual idiosyncratic nature of human-elephant conflict from a local perspective.

“Tracking, observing and just spending time with the elephants and people of this landscape helped me understand and appreciate their ways of life and I cannot now ever think of a substitute,” Nishant says.

Lessons from the field

After hundreds of hours observing individual elephant behavior—including how they spend their time, the other elephants they travel and socialize with, and the many types of environments they make use of—Nishant and his team observed significant behavior trends among his study group, as well as distinctive individual elephant idiosyncrasies.

Results and observations proved that human disturbance affects elephants. Elephants preferred areas that were rich in resources and protection, and most chose to avoid human-disturbed areas. When the elephants felt threatened they would spend more time on the move and they gathered in smaller, more compact groups with fewer social interactions and vocalizations. Several essential elephant activities, including feeding, free movement, and social interactions, were negatively affected by increasing human disturbance which increased the time that the elephants had to stop what they were doing and stand alert.

For example, the proportion of time spent feeding was reduced from 54.08% in low human-disturbance areas to 26.44% in high human-disturbance areas. Resting ceased in highly human disturbed areas, with the proportion of time spent moving in these areas increasing to 64.07% from 29.07% in areas relatively less disturbed. Such behavioral observations suggest that humans are a big problem for elephants.

Managing elephants, one at a time

When elephants are stressed from human disturbance, their behavior becomes less predictable, more individualized, and harder to manage. Appreciating the personalities of individual elephants—including their idiosyncratic reactions to disturbance—is a good first step toward preventing conflicts with humans in dense areas.

Study area. Click image to enlarge.

Nishant shared with the illustrative example of two similar elephants, SAM and STK. These young subadults belonged to the same age group (10-15 years old) and sex, but their behavior was different in high-human activity areas. SAM, whether alone or in groups, appeared more often in peopled areas (nearly 50% of the time), while STK, on the other hand, appeared in peopled areas only when in all-male group (nearly 17% of the time) and clearly avoided such areas when solitary. Nishant explained to that since individual preferences and behavior patterns cannot be explained at the population level, “targeted efforts of conflict mitigation aimed at SAM might prove more fruitful than with STK,” because of personality differences between elephants.

The more they know about individuals, the better wildlife managers are able to understand and design conflict reduction plans around the tendencies of particular elephants. This is necessary, Nishant told, because “more traditional population-level approaches alone would be inadequate.” The authors explain in their paper that individual level studies are important because they highlight the needs of particular individuals, after which “management strategies would then have to be designed to address problems posed by particular individuals rather than for the population at large.”

While he is pleased to present scientific evidence proving that individual elephants showed idiosyncratic behaviors, Nishant admitted that he is not surprised by these findings: “the recognition of individual variability in behavioral strategies is not new to long-time elephant watchers, whether in Africa or Asia.”

A changing world for elephants

Elephant group feeding. Photo courtesy of Nishant Srinivasaiah.

As elephants are stressed by and forced to react to increasing amounts of human disturbance, Nishant hopes to impress upon readers “the need to acknowledge the existence of individual idiosyncrasies among elephants and acknowledge the growing awareness that we need to manage elephants adaptively,” i.e. according to their individual needs.

For Nishant and his team, the future of elephant conservation has to do with trying to understand particular elephant individuals so well that they can confidently predict how a particular elephant might react to disruptions in their environment.

The authors hope their research might be proactively used “to develop predictive models that would allow us to cater to the needs of a particular elephant population and also to the demands of each individual within it.”

In an area with 9,000 elephants, managing conflicts is difficult, and coming up with a refined plan for each elephant sounds impossible, but Nishant is confident that individual behavioral studies can be easily integrated with the daily patrolling system of the local forest staff.

Finally, Nishant acknowledges the inherent difficulty of trying to understand and accurately predict individual animal behavior, but he believes it both worthwhile and possible with sufficient observation. He insists that explanations that consider individual idiosyncrasies best represent the reality of elephant decision-making. He is hopeful for the future of elephant conservation as new predictive models are coming very close to being accurate predictors of behavior.

With time and many hours of observation, researchers are gaining a greater understanding of the lives and choices of individuals like SAM the elephant.

“We might never be able to get to know what exactly an elephant is thinking or what the exact cognitive processes that drive decision-making are,” he says. “But we can definitely improve our understanding of the elephants.”

CITATION: Srinivasaiah NM, Anand VD, Vaidyanathan S, Sinha A (2012) Usual Populations, Unusual Individuals: Insights into the Behavior and Management of Asian Elephants in Fragmented Landscapes. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42571. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042571

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