Two Roads Diverged In The Wood; Which One Will The Elephant Take?
© PRASENJEET YADAV
This piece is based on the following study:
Vasudev, D., Fletcher, R. J., Srinivas, N., Marx, A. J., & Goswami, V. R. (2022, December 27). Mapping the connectivity–conflict interface to inform conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(1). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2211482119
Thumbnail image Credit: Ganesh Raghunathan
India is home to a unique situation where high densities of people share spaces with wildlife, leading to frequent encounters. It is no surprise that we often come across news articles related to these interactions. Animals need to move between habitats to find resources for basic survival needs. This movement also promotes healthier populations by fostering genetic diversity. However, dispersing animals may come into conflict with people, leading to loss of lives and livestock, and agricultural damage. This may also result in retaliatory action, posing a threat to wildlife. Coexistence has become a primary concern and a goal for people working towards conservation as well as human well-being.
In this context, how can wildlife connectivity and human-wildlife conflict be addressed simultaneously? A new paper by Divya Vasudev, Rob J Fletcher, Nishanth Srinivas, Andrew J Marx and Varun R Goswami introduces a framework that provides simultaneous perspectives of both sides of the paradox. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), predicts conflict hotspots and identifies location-specific strategies to minimise human-wildlife interactions and boost connectivity. The authors illustrated the framework using the endangered and wide-ranging Asian elephants in the Mysore Elephant Reserve (ER) as an example.
Asian elephants are important species in the lens of connectivity conservation and conflict mitigation. The Mysore ER is a landscape characterised by a mix of protected areas, reserve forests, and agricultural settlements. It hosts the largest population of elephants in India and is a crucial conservation area with a history of negative human-elephant interactions.
Two of the most common strategies used in the Mysore ER to deal with elephants that come into conflict while dispersing have included fencing and the removal of ‘problem’ elephants. However, while fencing may mitigate conflict, it does so at the expense of elephant dispersal through the landscape. Moreover, there have been reports of increased mortality risk of elephants trying to bypass fences. When it comes to the relocation of elephants, no example illustrates its inefficiency better than the Alur-Sakleshpur case. In 2014, the government relocated 22 elephants that were considered an isolated population. However, in less than a year, the area was recolonised by elephants. This indicates that the population was never isolated and further substantiates the need for conservation strategies tailored to the connectivity–conflict interface.
To provide a solution, the authors developed a framework that derives from random-walk theory – a concept that models animal movement step-by-step and predicts the animals’ next step based on their previous location. They extended the random-walk theory using a mathematical framework called Markov chains. The spatial absorbing Markov chain (SAMC) framework accounts for movement behaviour, mortality risk, and potential conflict for animals that migrate through a landscape. To develop their framework, the researchers collected data from three key elephant populations in the Mysore Elephant Reserve, which served as the starting points for dispersal. They also interviewed locals to gather information on elephant activity and conflict. The interview data helped validate the framework and provided insights into how elephants use the landscape and the areas where conflict is most prevalent. Landscape resistance was shown to be determined by land use and human population density, wherein elephants avoided areas with high population density.
Note: What is landscape resistance? Landscape resistance refers to the extent to which a location is difficult or easy for elephants to move through. Higher resistance values indicate that elephants are less likely to move through those areas and vice versa.
Sites with coconut and areca nut plantations had higher conditional conflict than croplands and agroforest plantations, such as coffee, since elephants tended to avoid the latter two. The study also found that the risk of conflict when elephants moved through an area was slightly higher in regions with high densities of humans.
Using this data, the authors created maps of “landscape resistance” (Map 1) that show where elephants are likely to move and “conditional conflict” maps (Map 2) that show where conflict is likely to occur if elephants use a particular location. Landscape resistance and conditional conflict in the Mysore ER was found to be positively correlated, suggesting that elephants avoided moving through areas with an increased risk of conflict.
The framework addresses the paradox of connectivity and conflict mitigation and helps identify areas where strategies for addressing both can work together. It does so by simplifying the identification of relevant conservation actions in areas depending on the risk of conflict between humans and wildlife. Based on their connectivity and conflict levels, the conservation landscapes are categorised into four scenarios:
The locations of least conservation concern are those that play little or no role in connectivity and face minimal conflict. Here, conservation strategies could focus on habitat restoration, increasing woody vegetation and facilitating connectivity to encourage animal movement through these areas. Areas that allow connectivity and face minimal conflict have the highest potential for long-term conservation and human-wildlife coexistence.
The framework also distinguishes between conflict hotspots with high and low visitation rates by wildlife, and different conservation strategies are needed for each. Insurance schemes or barriers restricting animal entry may suffice for hotspots with low visitation rates since conflict here is sporadic. For hotspots with high visitation rates or in the “connectivity-conflict interface”, deeper deliberation is needed to address conflict while allowing animal movement. Redirecting animal movement to alternative corridors may also reduce negative interactions while maintaining connectivity.
Mitigating conflict and promoting connectivity does not end with identifying conservation strategies. If the concerns of the local communities are not addressed, the situation may worsen. Conservationists, governments, and scientists must engage closely with stakeholders and design long-term strategies involving community-based interventions. Context-specific conservation that allows for movement while minimising conflict is the need of the hour.