The feral elephants of the Andaman Islands

  • In the late nineteenth century, Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were introduced to the Andaman Islands to work in timber operations that continued until the early 2000s.
  • On occasions working elephants escaped captivity or were released into the jungle. These elephants formed feral herds, now found on Interview Island and North Andaman.
  • The impacts of introducing elephants on the ecosystems of Andaman Islands remain a matter of debate, with some arguing their presence has affected the native vegetation while others assert that they haven’t had any significant ecological impact given their small numbers, indicating the need for further research.

Located about a thousand miles east of India’s mainland in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman archipelago consists of several hundred lush islands known for breathtaking white beaches and unique biodiversity. Part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, the Andaman Islands harbour a total of around 9,130 animal species straddling both terrestrial habitats and marine waters. Of these, 1,032 species are endemic to these islands.

Historically, the forests of the Andaman Islands have also been home to several tree species coveted by loggers: the highly valued padauk (Pterocarpus dalbergioides); gurjan (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), a straight and tall tree known for good quality timber; gangaw (Mesua ferrea) suitable for sleepers; and didu (Bombax insigne) for tea boxes. In the late nineteenth century, the British colonial authorities started a bustling timber industry in these remote islands. In 1883, the first sawmill was established with an annual log intake capacity of 20,000 cubic meters.

Soon, with the loggers, these islands also saw the arrival of a new species: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Elephants from the Indian mainland and Burma were brought to Andaman to work in the logging industry. These beasts would drag timber from logging sites to the docks on the seashore.

Elephants working in the timber yard of Hutbay, Little Andaman Island, in the year 1998. Image by Pankaj Sekhsaria.

Large-scale logging continued in the Andaman Islands for over half a century after India’s Independence until it was banned in 2001. While the logging industry has become a thing of the past, the elephants brought to Andaman to work in timber extraction remain here. By 2009, there were about 99 captive elephants in the Andaman Islands. The figure declined to about 63 by 2019. Most of these elephants are now privately owned and maintained and used for timber-related work or tourism purposes.

There is also a small population of feral elephants in the Andamans. Since the early days of timber exploration, working elephants occasionally escaped or were released into the jungle. Over time, these elephants formed feral–a term for domestic and primarily non-native animals that turned wild–breeding herds. Today, the largest population of Andaman’s feral elephants is found on Interview Island. Very small groups of feral elephants are occasionally reported from North Andaman. According to the forest officials in Interview Island Wildlife Sanctuary, who did not wish to be named, there hasn’t been any census of Andaman’s feral elephants, but the current population in the sanctuary is believed to be about a dozen.

The island ecosystems of Andaman are reeling under threats from numerous invasive species, most prominently from the large number of chitals (Axis axis), a herbivore introduced from the Indian mainland that has affected the regeneration of native vegetation in Andaman. Due to their small number and the lack of recent studies, the impacts feral elephants may have on Andaman’s ecosystems remain unknown.

Why are elephants considered invasive on Andaman Islands? #wildlife

How many can be too many?

Interview Island’s 101-square-kilometer landscape is covered by semi-evergreen littoral forests and mangroves. Located 125 kilometres north of Port Blair, it was once a major logging site during the colonial era.

Laurie Winslow Sargent, a United States-based writer and novelist, told Mongabay-India that her grandfather J. Kenneth Pearce, worked as a logging engineer in Interview Island in the first half of the twentieth century. “Elephants played a major role in the logging operations. My grandfather mentioned elephants in his diaries and took a few photographs of elephants as well. He introduced mechanized logging techniques as an alternative to elephant power.”

In the early 1960s, a bankrupt logging company released an estimated fifty elephants on the island. These animals have since formed a breeding population. In 1985, the government declared Interview Island a wildlife sanctuary devoted to protecting these feral elephants.

Interview Island is located 125 kilometers north of Port Blair, and it is covered by semi-evergreen littoral forests and mangroves. Map created on Datawrapper.

In a 2001 survey, Rauf Ali, a prominent wildlife biologist, counted 31 elephants on Interview Island. However, researchers from the Salim Ali Institute of Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, found in a 2012 study that the feral elephant population on Interview Island consists of only about 11 individuals. The study also stated that forest officials had reported the deaths of about 15 elephants in the previous decades.

Bijoyandana Dudul Chowdhury, an elephant handler and expert from Assam, was called in by the Andaman administration to help study the feral elephants of Interview Island. On his visit to the island in 1997, he had sighted only 11 animals.

Conservationists suggest that poaching may have triggered the decline in the numbers of Andaman’s feral elephants. Over the years, numerous reports of seizures of elephant tusks have been reported across Andaman.

Effects on local vegetation

A 2012 study on the feral elephants of Andaman stated that the presence of jumbos has affected the native vegetation of Interview Island. It stated, “Damage due to debarking is now occurring on tree species that were previously not eaten [by elephants], due to the reduction in food resources, and this has led to damage to the forest…the continued existence of elephants will lead to further vegetation degradation.”

A 2004 study by the late wildlife biologist Ali also found that elephants had caused “canes, bamboo, and pandanus [to show a major decline].” It further stated that a preliminary survey in 2001 confirmed the debarking of many trees on Interview Island.

Forest rangers in Andaman concur that Interview Island’s vegetation has declined significantly over the past few decades. Plants such as bamboo, rattans, and pandanus have become scarcer.

However, not everyone agrees that feral elephants have seriously impacted Andaman’s ecology. Prajna Chowta, an Indian conservationist and co-founder of the Aane Mane Foundation dedicated to the study of Asian elephants, told Mongabay-India, “Previous studies didn’t take into account the impact of timber extraction on the biodiversity of the Andaman islands during colonial and postcolonial periods, and the wild elephants are so few and elusive that they are unlikely to alter drastically the vegetation of the islands. Furthermore, the flora is very similar to that of Burma, which has supported large herbivores for millennia.”

Elephants as an invasive species

Nevertheless, invasive species are generally known to have drastic effects on island ecosystems across the globe. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) states that “islands are more prone to invasion by alien species because of the lack of natural competitors and predators that control populations in their native ecosystems.”

While the feral elephant population in Andaman is very small, and their impacts on native ecology are still a matter of debate, the issue nonetheless sheds light on a policy dilemma regarding managing invasive species in India.

India’s Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 defines invasive alien species as “a species of animal or plant which is not native to India and whose introduction or spread may threaten or adversely impact wildlife or its habitat.” As a result of the geopolitical nature of this definition, species that are native to India but are still invasive when introduced to a new habitat within the country remain outside the purview of regulation. For example, the elephant and the chital are legally protected native species in India, but in the context of the Andaman Islands, these animals are considered invasive alien species harmful to the native ecosystem.

A feral elephant inside Interview Island Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area established in 1985 to safeguard these elephants. Image courtesy of the Environment and Forests Department of Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Furthermore, the case of Andaman’s feral elephants is even more complicated. The species is accorded the highest level of protection by the Wild Life Act of India and listed as ‘endangered’ in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, but is considered invasive in the Andaman Islands by the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), a statutory body entrusted with meeting the obligations of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) to which India is a signatory. Section 8(h) of the CBD exhorts, “Each contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species.”

“This shows the lack of a clear policy regarding the management of the elephants in Andaman,” a senior veterinary officer in the Andaman and Nicobar forest department told Mongabay-India. “Clearly, we need more research to understand the impacts of the introduction of elephants on Andaman’s ecology.”

The lack of research on the possible invasiveness of elephants in Andaman may have to do with the fact that it is a highly charismatic species. In a 2020 study, researchers at the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) found that charisma affects management, research attention, and media portrayals of invasive species. A charismatic species, even when invasive in a particular context, has high social acceptance compared to an unattractive invasive species. The study suggested this also impacts research attention, or the lack thereof, vis-à-vis invasive species.

Banner image: An elephant working in timber operations on Interview Island. The photo was taken in the 1930s by J. Kenneth Pearce, a logging engineer working on the island. Image courtesy of Laurie Winslow Sargent.

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