Where elephants roam: mapping the distribution of an endangered megaherbivore

Conservation is very often about making choices. Take elephants, for example. Sure, we agree that they must be conserved. Yet, there are fundamental questions for which answers have long proven elusive, such as: where must we conserve elephants? Where should the needs of elephants take priority over those of humans? Where should it be the other way around? And how should we decide? Answers to these questions may not be easy, but without reliable knowledge and greater public engagement, they may well be impossible. To put conservation planning for Asian elephants on a firm foundation of reliable knowledge, NCF’s researchers facilitated a collaborative effort to map Karnataka’s elephants.

India is home to around 60% of the global population of the endangered Asian elephant. Karnataka supports the country’s largest population of the species. Reliable maps are crucial for conservation and a basic prerequisite for planning sound management action. Even so, there are none on the distribution of Asian elephants not only in Karnataka but across most of the species’ global range.

Researchers from NCF and eight other institutions mapped elephant distribution data gathered from various sources including dung counts, records of human-elephant conflict, media reports, and interviews with key informants from the Forest Department, people from forest-dwelling communities and experts. The data were collected over 16 years (2000 – 2015) from areas inside and outside protected areas (PAs) in Karnataka.

The study found that elephants occurred in 972 of Karnataka’s 2,855 forest beats—the smallest forest administrative units in the state. Of the 972 forest beats with elephants, only 385 occurred within notified PAs. Interestingly, the remaining 587 beats (or 60%) were outside PAs and included lands designated for agricultural production and human dwelling. This indicates a significant overlap of elephant range and human-dominated areas, a perfect recipe for conflict.

Elephant distribution in Karnataka in relation to the forest cover 
and protected areas.

Elephants do not understand administrative boundaries and often range widely within and outside protected areas. Protecting them within the key wildlife reserves where they occur is absolutely necessary, of course, but by no means sufficient. Devising a reasonable strategy to secure spaces for these giants on unprotected lands without undermining human well-being there is perhaps the most crucial need for elephant conservation. But it isn’t possible to get at any of these without strong and reliable baselines, and that’s precisely what the study is all about.

While setting baselines to map and monitor elephant populations in Karnataka, the study also recommends similar exercises at larger landscape levels and at global scales, to strengthen elephant conservation across Asia.




Photo credit: M.D. Madhusudan