- The Wayanad plateau witnesses high footfall of elephants in summer compared to the surrounding areas in the Nilgiri landscape, a new study finds.
- Researchers say that some forest areas in the plateau act as functional corridors for elephants to move between forest patches which need the same recognition as historical elephant corridors.
- Considering the landscape’s prominence in times of climate change, the study calls for strategic protected area expansion and acquisition of swamps and riparian forests close to forest areas as one of the conservation investments for the species.
Elephants frequent the wet forest tract of the Wayanad plateau during summer owing to the riparian forests and swamps in the landscape that make the habitat cooler and wetter than the surrounding matrix of dry forests in the adjacent Mysore and Sigur plateaus of the Nilgiri landscape, finds a recent study.
The Wayanad plateau in the Brahmagiri‐Nilgiri‐Eastern Ghats landscape of peninsular India supports the largest breeding population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) globally, according to the study. This area provides year‐round water availability and forage to elephants.
The Asian elephant is a globally endangered species with 50,000 individuals remaining in the wild. About 60 percent of the population is in India with 25 percent in the global biodiversity hotspot of the Western Ghats. Historically, Asian elephants populated an area of more than nine million sq km, but their range has been reduced to 500,000 sq km over the past three millennia, suggests a study done in 2003.
The existing habitat is highly fragmented with many anthropogenic pressures coupled with other factors like climate change leading to the degradation of these patches. With their habitats lost or fragmented, elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with humans. It is crucial to conserve the remaining forest patches used by elephants as some of them even act as seasonal micro habitat for the species, as studies find.
Water bodies and trees act as summer coolers for elephants
The study in Wayanad, by researchers from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Wildlife Conservation Trust, says that the riparian forests and swamps provide the elephants with shade and opportunities to take mud baths as a buffer against thermal stress. Yet, this landscape is highly neglected with little conservation efforts done to protect it. “Elephants use this tract extensively during summer. They don’t visit the region in monsoon due to forage availability in other habitats to the east of the Nilgiri landscape that comprises protected areas like Bandipur and Nagarahole tiger reserves,” said the study lead Anoop N.R.
This seasonal migration of elephants was revealed in the first telemetry study of elephants done by the Bombay Natural History Society in 1999, informed noted ecologist and elephant expert Raman Sukumar. The 1999 study found that the availability of wetlands and numerous perennial streams, even though they account for only 13% of the 2000 sq km area of the Wayanad plateau, have a disproportionate effect on elephants during summer. He said that when the elephant census was taken in May 2017, a high concentration of elephants was noticed in Wayanad, owing mainly to the 2016 drought that impacted other elephant habitats like Bandipur and Nagarahole tiger reserves in the neighbouring state of Karnataka. A scientist at ATREE, T. Ganesh, who was a part of the study, said that it was known that the Wayanad plateau was an important habitat for elephants but not many scientific investigations were done to validate it.
Wayanad plateau needs better protection and conservation measures
Despite its significance, much of this landscape was converted into plantations over a period of time. “Out of 344 sq km of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, almost 100 sq km area is plantation,” Anoop said, adding that he wanted to explore how elephants were using the remaining landscape. This high fragmentation of forests is one of the main reasons for increasing conflict between humans and elephants. Other factors including the increased population of elephants, especially the male elephants from better protection measures in the recent past, depletion of palatable plant species for herbivores due to the spread of invasive plant species, changing forest fire dynamics, etc. are pushing elephants out of forests and towards plantations and human habitations.
The researchers call for long-term research to fully comprehend the importance of Wayanad as a dry season habitat for elephants in the Nilgiri landscape, especially in the context of climate change. “Elephants are a long-living species. To have a better understanding of their complex relationships with their habitats and how they use them, long-term studies spanning at least three decades is essential,” Anoop said.
Sukumar points to a 2013 study that predicts an overall weakening of monsoon and a reduction in rainfall over the west coast of India in the following three decades. “Studies should be done to understand how this change in rainfall will affect the movement and habitat use of elephants in the future,” he said.
The study findings have important policy implications as these areas are functional corridors of elephants that they use to move between forest patches which need to be recognised along with historical elephant corridors, according to the researchers. The study suggests a strategic protected area expansion and acquisition of swamps and riparian forests close to forest areas as one of the conservation investments in the landscape.
Other suggestions include finding ways to minimise habitat degradation from various factors like the spread of invasive plants, grazing, monoculture plantations, man-made large fires, etc through eco-restoration plans. Ganesh said that Wayanad forests are highly fragmented and policy interventions should look at ways to connect these corridors. The study also suggests the forest department create and maintain buffer zones outside protected areas that include agricultural areas frequented by the elephants for their safe use.
Anoop said that eco-restoration should happen with community participation ensuring some amount of conservation funds is allocated to the communities. “Only when the communities are compensated for their loss due to elephants will they be tolerant towards the animals,” he said.
Banner image: Two elephants seen with a calf in Wayanad. Photo by Anoop N.R.