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An increasing number of elephants have been observed to use human-dominated landscapes in recent times. Most often, the males of the species are known to forage on the nutritious crops that are cultivated. Farmers, who live in these areas and cultivate the land, constantly find themselves in conflict with these animals as they struggle to protect their crops and their property.

This, combined with the increasing number of elephant fatalities as a result of conflict-related deaths and capture, has created an urgent need for conflict management and conservation of the Asian Elephant. A number of different methods have been tried, with varying degrees of success, to keep elephants from entering human populated areas. Such as the use of railway-lines in fencing or digging trenches around forest borders, and, in Africa, using bees to drive away elephants.

Some of these methods provide short term solutions, but most of them often prove to be harmful to elephants, sometimes even resulting in fatalities.

By studying elephant behaviour and relationships both at the group and individual level, and understanding their decision-making process, we aim to find more wholesome solutions to the problem of human-elephant conflict.

Elephant on the Zebra Crossing
Predicting human-elephant conflict to inform urban development in and around Bengaluru city

The expanding magnitude of human-use area has brought about an increase in the number of encounters between people and wildlife. Asian elephants generally prefer resource-rich areas away from human activity, but they sometimes stray into human-use areas in search of food and water or as they migrate from one landscape to another.  

We have been studying nearly 500 elephants in and around Bengaluru district since 2009 and have identified these elephants and their movement patterns. Interestingly, elephants make the long and arduous journey from Bannerghatta National Park towards agricultural regions in nearby districts by crossing busy highways and railroads

We are now analysing data on elephants that we have collected over many years to assess the proximate factors, which influence their decision-making to build predictive models of human-elephant conflict, which include future urbanisation, in the peri-urban and urban areas of Bengaluru city to inform future developmental activities.

We will be focusing on human-elephant conflict in and around urban habitats, and provide guidelines for agriculture and infrastructure development and town planning in regions that are close to elephant habitats. We also hope to make policy-makers more receptive towards the elephant use of this already fragile forest habitat of southern India.

The Millennial Males

Studying sociality and decision-making of male elephants in human-dominated areas

This project will study the behaviour of male elephants in a human-dominated landscape. Particularly, how their external environment (such as habitat quality and population density) and their internal conditions (like physiology and body condition) influence their interactions with other males.

Young males usually stay with their herd until the age of ten to fifteen years. After this, they typically lead solitary lives. It is during this time that these young males sometimes travel vast distances, often through human populated areas, to find a suitable habitat for themselves.

Although mostly solitary, male elephants have been found to form all-male groups when they enter farms to feed on crops. There is still much we do not know about this societal aspect of male elephants. For instance, what factors influence the formation of these groups, do they form associations with their sibships or affiliate themselves with unrelated bulls?

Male elephants that feed on agricultural crops have been shown to be in better body condition and have the ability to come into musth, a state of heightened sexual activity, and remain in musth for longer durations of time.

Understanding the movement and decision-making patterns of elephants will help us anticipate potential areas of conflict. We aim to work with farmers in these areas to create conflict mitigation strategies that harness the behavioural adaptability of these animals. This approach also allows us to proactively address this problem and gives us time device solutions specific to each locality.

Of Elephants and Men

Documenting the knowledge of Mahouts in South India

About half of all wild Asian elephants and about twenty-three percent of all captive Asian elephants live in India. In captivity, they are often found in temples, zoos, government-run elephant camps, orphanages and under the ownership of private individuals. 

The art of elephant-keeping is more than 3500 years old and this project aims to understand the relationship between the two protagonists: the elephant and the elephant-keeper, under the current management system. 

We will do this by observing mahouts while they interact with elephants to understand how they are able to establish a relation with these animals and gain their trust.

We will also observe elephants to interpret their responses to humans. Do elephants follow the commands of the mahouts out of fear or do they share a more intimate relationship? 

The job of the Mahout is a difficult and dangerous one. To add to this, they work long hours and receive very little compensation. The younger generations of these family, that usually carry on the tradition, are now moving into cities to get higher paying jobs. Documenting their way of life and their knowledge will help us understand elephants in the wild and in captivity better.