BNHS-USFWS PROJECT ON THE ELEPHANTS OF THE EASTERN GHATS AREAS OF KARNATAKA STATE
Once distributed over a wide geographical region in Asia, the Asian Elephant Elephas maximus has declined over much of its range and has an estimated world population of around 40,000 animals. More than 50% of these occur in India, confined largely to the remaining patches of forests of the Himalayas and the Western and Eastern Ghats. Even in these last refuges, elephants face increasing pressures due to India’s alarming human population growth. Since the 1980s, elephant populations in the fringe areas of these refuges have started to disperse, colonizing habitats in which they did not occur for centuries. One such case pertaining to the Eastern Ghats was the dispersal of elephants in the 1980s from the Hosur-Dharmapuri forest areas of Tamil Nadu to ca. 60km northeast into what was declared later as the Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary (Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh), which was subject to a BNHS-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborative research project. Later, herds and individuals from Koundinya further dispersed ca. 100 km northwards into Sri Venkateswara Wildlife Sanctuary-National Park (Andhra Pradesh) and ca. 40km southeast into the Javadi hills of Tamil Nadu.
The work carried out through the one-year project (Jan. 2005 to Dec. 2005) provided substantial information on the situation of elephants and their habitat in Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary (see Hornbill /Jan-March 2006: 12-15). Nevertheless, the study was incomplete in two major aspects. One was that it was also essential to know the situation of elephants and habitat in the other colonized site in Andhra Pradesh, the Sri Venkateswara Wildlife Sanctuary-National Park to assess the long-term potential of the elephant populations now in Andhra Pradesh. The other was to know reasons for the elephants deserting their original home, the contiguous Hosur and Dharmapuri reserve forests. Was it a consequence of habitat loss, degradation and disturbance or an increase in elephant populations beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat? This was the genesis of another one-year BNHS-USFWS project, the fieldwork of which ended in March 2008 (see Hornbill /Oct-Dec 2008: 62-67). On a larger scale, the study was significant as its findings helped wildlife managers to better understand and manage problems associated with dispersal and colonization of elephants.
Subsequent to these two projects, the BNHS again in partnership with the USFWS, undertook a third project on assessing the ‘situation’ of elephants in the Eastern Ghats areas of Karnataka state, as these forest patches, adjoin or are connected to the Hosur-Dharmpuri forests, the subject of the earlier project. This new project will cover the forest tracts of Biligiriranga Wildlife Sanctuary, Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kollegal Reserve Forest of Karnataka. Data collection is over for the Biligiriranga Wildlife Sanctuary, and work is in progress in the other two sites and will be completed by March 2012.
The Principal Investigator of all these projects is Mr. J.C. Daniel, the former Director and Honorary Secretary of the Society and now it’s Vice-President, who also headed the decade-long, pioneer scientific study on the Asian Elephant in India with the base camp in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary during the 1980s. The field station of the three projects in the Eastern Ghats was/is headed by Dr. Ranjit Manakadan. The staff who worked/work in the earlier/present projects were/are Mr. S. Swaminathan, Mr. M. Ramesh Babu and Mr. G. Balasubramanian. Ajay Desai served as the ‘Elephant Consultant’ and Mohan Raj as the ‘GIS Consultant’ in the first two projects.
The studies undertaken under all the projects basically estimated the population/density, distribution and movements of elephants in the study sites, assessed the quality of the habitat in terms of food, water, saltlick resources and the degree of human related pressures, assessed the loss of forest cover over the years through GIS techniques, and investigated the problem of human-elephant conflict occurring in these areas. All these projects have resulted in a better understanding of the elephant population, distribution, habitat and conservation issues of elephants in this southern part of the Eastern Ghats. It is planned to undertake a study of the ‘elephant situation’ in the Eastern Ghats areas of Orissa, and with this and the studies being taken up by the WWF-India in the Eastern Ghats areas of Tamil Nadu (Satyamangalam and Erode forest divisions) under their AREAS programme, we will have a much clearer profile of the situation of elephants in the Eastern Ghats of India.