A Case Study on Vinayaga.
Since the 1980s, translocation has been used as a management tool in cases of human-elephant conflict (HEC) to deal with individual male elephants involved in high levels of conflict. The idea it serves is two-fold, first being to ensure that the individual involved continues being a denizen of the wild while reducing or eliminating conflict caused by the animal in human-inhabited areas.
But, animal behavior dictates that the translocated elephant will try to move back to its original range or at the very least will explore the new habitat in order to learn about resource distribution, thus eventually straying out into new farmlands or charting a route back to its old home range. So, is translocation an efficient tool for conflict mitigation?
This is the story of Vinayaga, a young male with a ginormous built, who was translocated from Coimbatore Forest Division to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in December 2018. This provided WWF-India’s field team from the Western Ghats and Nilgiri Landscape a chance to study the interventions involved in the course of the translocation and the response of the animal to those interventions.
In Coimbatore, Vinayaga came into the limelight of the forest department by raiding crops regularly, entering human habitations at night- posing an imminent threat to human life and teaching the same behavior to other younger males who followed him into the crop fields. Habituated to the constant presence of humans and their noise, the regular attempts made by the forest department at driving it away failed more than often. Moreover, it wasn't only the humans and their crops that were at risk- accidental electrocutions from low hanging wires, falling into empty wells and dangers of retaliatory killing by locals posed an equally emergent threat to the elephant as well. The state forest department along with WWF-India, therefore, planned on translocating Vinayaga and radio-collared the elephant prior to its release.
And, here is what the team learned in their three and a half months of monitoring.
Initially, Vinayaga stayed close to the boundary of Mudumalai TR – Bandipur TR where he was released. Gradually, he started moving north and reached the northern boundary of Bandipur TR where he managed to find gaps in the EPT (Elephant Proof Trench) and strayed out to raid crops. Meanwhile, the forest staff from Bandipur TR had already been informed about the new translocated elephant in their area, who along with the local farmers and WWF-India staff managed to successfully drive it back into the forest. The team from Bandipur TR also identified and blocked all the gaps in the EPT using rail fencing.
They say, “old habits die hard”, and rightly so cause whenever he was driven away from the crop fields, he would retreat into the forest and stay close to the boundary waiting for an opportunity to go back again.
However, the constant manning of the TR boundaries forced Vinayaga to move around and explore other areas of the forest, thus being away from crop fields for days on end. This somehow indicated that the animal could survive without raiding crop fields and was not averse in doing so.
Using a GPS collar the team was able to gather 2089 locations spread over 107 days (19 December 2018 – 4 April 2019) and of these, less than 5% locations were in agricultural areas and another 16% were within 500 meters of an agricultural area. On days when he raided croplands and ventured deeper into human inhabited areas, the margin was raised by another 6% in terms of locations visited thus, making it a total of 27%.
This figure stood at a sharp decline from a time in Coimbatore, when Vinayaga would be involved in raiding farms on a regular basis. Furthermore, the team realized that being dissuaded from raiding by anti-depredation teams of locals was also something that did not happen in Coimbatore. While it's not clear why this is so, but it could be possible that its introduction into an alien habitat has made him more susceptible to being driven away by people. But what’s important to acknowledge is that management the intervention at the beginning and effective interventions by the management and people could potentially contain conflict.
Over the period of 107 days, Vinayaga had covered 413 km2 of the area across Mudumalai TR, Bandipur TR, and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Its use of Wayanad was very minimal, with just 2.2% of the locations lying in that PA and the bulk of its time were spent in Mudumalai TR (68.6% of locations) and Bandipur TR (26.4% of locations). In addition, 2.8% of the locations were mapped outside Bandipur TR and Mudumalai TR on instances when it went out to raid crops.
In addition to early interventions, it is also important to test a soft release using a ‘boma’ or enclosure at the release site where the elephant is held for a short period of time so that it gets used to the new habitat and the smell of new elephants in the area, post which it can be released into the wild. The ‘boma’ or enclosure should have adequate size and resources to support the elephant for the duration of the holding period and external intervention by way of feeding should be minimized to avoid habituation to people.
With the increasing loss of habitat and human habitations continually edging deeper into the remaining tracts of forests, translocation could be important tool conservation in the future. Habitat fragmentation has resulted in the creation of small populations that are not genetically viable for long term conservation. Such translocations and their study not only offer the opportunity to resolve HEC in an acceptable way but also help build the skills and techniques needed for meta-population management where the future of conservation lies.