An Assam Forest Department – WCS India initiative 'Know Your Elephants' seeks to create a photographic database of individual elephants in Kaziranga National Park.
Every elephant is distinct. Their facial features, personality, ability to reproduce, tendency to disperse, propensity to raid crops, are different. Just as we subconsciously use facial features to distinguish one person from another, we can, in a more systematic and explicit manner, use morphological features to individually identify wild elephants. Following this approach, Wildlife Conservation Society India Program, in collaboration with the Department of Environment and Forest, Government of Assam, is creating a photographic database of individually identified elephants in the Kaziranga National Park to inform conservation and monitoring.
A male elephant in Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga and its surrounding landscape house arguably the most important population of elephants in Northeast India. ©Varun R Goswami.
Kaziranga National Park, and the landscape surrounding it, arguably holds the most important population of elephants in Northeast India. Along with elephants, Kaziranga also houses tigers in one of the highest densities across their range; a majority of greater one-horned rhinoceros and eastern swamp deer; and a host of other species including the Asiatic water buffalo, hog deer, and many other mammals, migratory and resident birds, and flora. It is no surprise that Kaziranga is precious in the eyes of the people of Assam, nor that it has been recognised as a World Heritage Site.
Kaziranga NP is home to a number of endangered flora and fauna. ©Varun R Goswami.
WCS India and the Assam Forest Department are implementing their collaborative project Know Your Elephants in this important park. Project personnel survey the park extensively obtaining photographs of individual elephants; these photographs contain the critical pieces of information required for tag individual elephants. Dr. Varun Goswami, Project Investigator and Associate Director – Conservation Science, WCS India sheds light on how the identification process is done. “We identify elephants through their tusks, ears and tail. Elephant ears, especially, are telling; their shape, tears, cuts, and folds provide us with almost all the information we need to tell one elephant from another.”
But why identify elephants? At a workshop held on the 14th of May, 2018, at Kohora, Kaziranga, Dr. Goswami succinctly pointed to the insights we get from individual identification which can address challenges to elephant conservation, stating that “identifying elephants allows us to note where they move, which individuals frequent agricultural fields, and track population demography through time”.
Individual identification, in combination with the now globally-established capture–recapture modelling approach, can also provide reliable estimates of elephant numbers, which take into account both animals encountered, and animals missed.
Dr. Varun Goswami, elephant expert, points to how the shape and form of elephant ears can be used for individual identification of elephants (above). Distinctive tears on elephant ears too can help in tagging individuals sighted at different locations (below). ©Pragyan Sharma/WCS India and Varun R Goswami/WCS India
Kaziranga has its own particular conservation challenges. Every year, large parts of the park are inundated by the monsoon-fed Brahmaputra River. In 2017, about 85% of the park lay under water following heavy showers. This seasonal flooding is what fuels the rich biodiversity of this World Heritage Site. But it also means that animals need to move out of the park, across a heavily populated swath of land, to reach highlands to the south of the park. This yearly journey is risky, and information on how elephants fare will be valuable to conservation in the region.
Being able to track individual elephants could provide us with information on their movement routes — familiar paths that elephants pass on from generation to generation, as well as new routes forged in a changing landscape — which could aid in efforts to ensure their safety from human-induced pressures during this stressful season.
Elephants moving through paddy fields in this rich floodplain also leads to conflict with people. Managing such conflict is critical for conservationists and park managers and being able to identify elephants that are more prone to risky crop-raiding behaviour can aid in our response to conflict situations.
Elephants in Kaziranga National Park. ©Varun R Goswami/WCS India
At the workshop held in Kaziranga, Shri Rohini B. Saikia, IFS, Divisional Forest Officer, Eastern Wildlife Division, Assam (Kaziranga NP) emphasized the importance of forest guards and frontline staff knowing the concepts and benefits of the project. Shri. Rabindra Sharma, Research Officer, Kaziranga NP, also added to this requirement, by aligning local descriptors of elephants to the categories used as part of the project. “The project will help in assisting the park managers to identify and monitor the elephants of the park,” Shri. Saikia said. “It will also help to mitigate man–elephant conflict in the adjoining areas.”
The workshop was also attended by Assistant Conservator of Forests, Range Forest Officers and forest guards of Kaziranga, as well as WCS India staff and other interested elephant conservationists.
WCS India staff interacted with workshop participants. Parvathi Prasad explained protocols used for field data collection and database entry; Dr. Varun Goswami discussed tangible outcomes and benefits of the project; and Binod Gogoi expressed the utility of elephant research and conservation for the people of Kaziranga (clockwise from top left). ©Pragyan Sharma/WCS India
Workshop participants for the Assam FD – WCS India collaborative project on creating a photographic database of individual elephants in Kaziranga NP for conservation and monitoring held at Kohora, Kaziranga, on the 14th of May 2018. ©Pragyan Sharma/WCS India
“Elephants are fascinating animals and have captured our imagination for time immemorial,” Dr. Goswami said. “Identifying individuals can provide us with insights into elephant behaviour and their ability to survive a changing world.” Science-based conservation efforts are critical, he added, to ensure elephant persistence for future generations.
By Divya Vasudev