Helping the elephant cross the road: restoring lost elephant corridors in the Western Ghats

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Aditya Gangadharan, who continues our exploration of fieldwork in remote places with some stories from his PhD work in India’s Shencottah Gap.  As part of our ongoing collaboration with Wild Lens, Aditya also shared his experiences with Matthew Podolsky in an Eyes on Conservation podcast.  

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

You might wonder what is so remote about a region where more than 300 people live per square kilometre on average. I mean, that’s more than twice the population density of a city like Edmonton, where I currently live. But such profound thoughts are far from your mind when you are trying to sneak down from your camp to the nearby stream for a bath after a hard day of fieldwork in the rainforest (also known to insiders as ‘death by a million leech bites’).

The reason you are sneaking is that there are lots of elephants around. They like to bathe in the stream too, and don’t like to be interrupted by pesky humans…

Elephant 1

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

… and if (correction: when) they charge at you in the dark, the 200m to your camp may as well be 200km for all the help you will get!

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

Such is fieldwork in the Western Ghats of India – one of the richest and most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world. My PhD research was in the 400 sq. km Shencottah Gap, an economically-productive region that separates two reserves – and my goal was to identify corridors that could be restored, so that elephants and tigers could move between these reserves once again.

Rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

The Shencottah Gap: rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

A typical campsite - no fuss, nothing fancy required!

A typical campsite – no fuss, nothing fancy required!

Many of those remnant corridors are in the more rugged areas, because people tend to be concentrated into towns, villages and farmland in the flat, fertile valleys – and so, we follow the wildlife upwards! Of course that is easier said than done – there are few roads, so you have to walk to most places. You often have to camp out to reach those places, which in our case simply involves putting one tarpaulin sheet on the ground, another on top, and keeping a fire going.

But how do you find the animals? The vegetation is thick, so you rarely have any direct sightings – instead, you have to look for animal signs (like tracks and dung), or set up camera traps that automatically take a picture when an animal passes by. Normal people do this fieldwork only during the 6-9 months of the year when it is not raining. Less normal people such as myself are often in the field during the entire year, including the monsoon!

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.

 

Setting up a camera trap.

Setting up a camera trap.

Now, in the photo above, you probably noticed that the camera is encased in a very solid metal case, and secured by a heavy chain (no wonder my back hurts!). You might also be wondering: why is there elephant dung on top of the camera?

Well, elephants like to destroy cameras. And it is not fun to toil up a rugged mountain, place a camera there, go back after 3 weeks, and see that your camera was smashed on the same day you deployed it. So I had this brilliant and cunning idea that if I smeared the camera cases with dung, elephants might treat them with more kindness. The results I got were spectacularly useless: elephants are intelligent animals, and they are not going to be fooled by such a simple plan. The only tangible result of my experiment was my backpack smelling of dung for many weeks.

But I didn’t even mind them smashing the cameras…as long as they didn’t damage the SD cards!  Due to the kindness shown by some elephants in sparing our SD cards, we were able to document, for the first time in 30 years, elephants attempting to cross the Shencottah Gap. Specifically, we got them at the exact place that they had to turn around, because they were blocked from crossing by the steep descent down to the highway and the heavy traffic at this narrow pass:

Definitely a challenge for elephants to negotiate...

Turn back here: this steep descent and busy highway were impossible for elephants to cross.

And so, that’s where we are at today: it is demonstrably possible to restore these corridors in the Shencottah Gap. But actually implementing this restoration is a huge task – one that will likely take many years, and has to be led by the government. Luckily, there are positive signs from the government so far. One day, I hope this little guy will be able to migrate across the Shencottah Gap as his ancestors once did.

Elephants 3

AdityaAditya Gangadharan works on conserving biodiversity in fragmented landscapes that are subject to multiple uses by humans. He focuses on converting technical research into actionable policy recommendations, and communicating these to managers and the general public. He blogs about elephants, tigers and frogmouths at http://adityagangadharan.com.

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2 thoughts on “Helping the elephant cross the road: restoring lost elephant corridors in the Western Ghats

  1. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

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