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The use of radio-tracking data to guide development and manage elephants

  • Centre for Conservation and Research
  • Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri lanka
  • centre for conservation and research

Abstract and Figures

Asian elephants are difficult to observe because of habitat constraints and behavioural adaptations to avoid people. Consequently, accurate information on their movement patterns, habitat occupancy and resource use can only be obtained through radio- tracking. GPS radio telemetry is particularly useful for this purpose as it provides a wealth of high quality data. Around 60 elephants have been tracked in Sri Lanka over the past two decades using GPS collars. Here we present four case studies demonstrating the importance of such data in guiding development so as to prevent or reduce human-elephant conflict and for the effective management of elephants to ensure their conservation.
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INTRODUCTION information. In Sri Lanka, the main approach to
As a species, Asian elephants (Elephas both these objectives has been that of limiting
maximus) are unique, specially in terms of their elephan ts to protected areas under the
relationship with people. They are highly Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).
endangered, a flagship species for conservation However, after more than five decades of
and of great socio-cultural and religious pursuing this goal, today over 70% of elephants
importance in range countries. At the same time remain outside DWC protected areas. HEC
elephants cause widespread and intense conflict occurs entirely outside protected areas and
with people, leading to significant economic annually causes the death of over 250 elephants
losses and social disruption (Fernando, et al. and 70 people, significant loss of agricultural
2008). In all 13 south and southeast Asian range production and severe disruption of the life of
countries of the Asian elephant, human-elephant villagers over a larger area of dry zone Sri Lanka.
conflict (HEC) is a major conservation, socio- Du e t o t he constraints im po sed b y
economic and political issue. In most range behavioural and ecological aspects of Asian
countries HEC is escalating in spite of much elephants the only way to obtain reliable data on
effort and funds expended for its mitigation over their movement patterns, resource utilization
the past few decades (Fernando & Pastorini, and habitat occupancy is through radio
2011). Sri Lanka is an interesting example in this telemetry. Initial studies on Asian elephants used
context with the third highest density of people VHF telemetry where elephants were collared
among the range countries (behind Bangladesh with a VHF transmitter and then tracked using a
and India), an elephant density of almost ten directional antenna and a receiver. The elephant
times that of any other range country, and the is located by 'homing-in' where increasing signal
highest level of HEC (Fernando & Pastorini, strength is followed till the elephant is sighted or
2011). by triangulation where the direction to the
Across the range, conservation of elephants transmitter is detected from a number of
and mitigation of HEC has largely been based on positions and plotted on a map, with their
beliefs and past practices and not on scientific convergence being taken as the location of
behavioural adaptations to avoid people. Consequently, accurate information on their
movement patterns, habitat occupancy and resource use can only be obtained through radio-
tracking. GPS radio telemetry is particularly useful for this purpose as it provides a wealth of
high quality data. Around 60 elephants have been tracked in Sri Lanka over the past two
decades using GPS collars. Here we present four case studies demonstrating the importance of
such data in guiding development so as to prevent or reduce human-elephant conflict and for the
effective management of elephants to ensure their conservation.
Asian elephants are difficult to observe because of habitat constraints and
1 2 1
1 1 1,3
1Centre for Conservation and Research, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka
2Department of Wildlife Conservation, Battaramulla, Sri Lanka
3Anthropologisches Institute, Universität Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland
WILDLANKA Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 12 - 19, 2015.
Copyright 2015 Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka.
KEY WORDS : Radio-tracking data, HEC, MER, Asian Elephants
elephant (White & Garrot 1990). However, this every 8, 24 or 48 hours. Additionally, elephants
method involves much effort and time in the field were tracked using the VHF beacon on the collar
and the number of positions that can be obtained and observed opportunistically.
are rather limited. Data received from the collars was processed
The next generation of radio telemetry now with the manufacturer's software. The GPS data
available, uses GPS-collars, which record output was then screened to remove erroneous
geographic coordinates of a collared elephant at locations and delete repeats. GPS locations from
a pre-set time interval and transmit the data via collars were organized in Microsoft Excel. A text
satellite or mobile network. With a GPS system, file version of the data was imported into the GIS
once the collar is put on the elephant, the data is software Quantum GIS version 1.7 (QGIS) and
received remotely without need for any plotted on satellite imagery or 1:50,000
fieldwork. The quality and quantity of data topographic sheets.
obtained from GPS collars is magnitudes greater
and more precise than possible with VHF RESULTS
tracking. In addition, all GPS collars also have a Ca se S tud y 1 D ole Pla nta tio n i n
VHF unit that can be used to track elephants in Somāwathiya National Park
real time for direct observation. A banana plantation was commenced inside
Here we present four case studies which Somawathiya National Park by the multinational
illustrate the importance of radio-tracking data in corporation Dole in 2011. This created an outcry
guiding development to minimize negative from a number of concerned environmental
impacts on elephants and prevent HEC, and for organizations (Hance 2011a). In addition to the
management of elephants in order to conserve fact that the plantation was within the
them. Somawathiya National Park, one of the chief
concerns of the environmental lobby was that it
MATERIALS AND METHODS was in an area heavily utilized by elephants. It
Fiftysix elephants were collared over the last was argued that the plantation would cause the
two decades as part of a collaborative study by loss of a significant extent of elephant habitat,
the DWC and the Centre for Conservation and leading to increase of HEC in surrounding
Research (CCR) to obtain baseline information villages as elephants searched for alternative
to better elephant conservation and HEC resources. Additionally, as elephants are greatly
mitigation. Tranquilizing of elephants for attracted to banana trees, the plantation would
collaring was done by a DWC team of 15-20 create a major flashpointfor HEC, which would
personnel led by two DWC veterinarians be detrimental to the development as well as the
according to guidelines set out by the DWC. elephants.
The collars consisted of a GPS unit, VHF However Dole contended that there were no
transmitter beacon, satellite or GSM transmitter elephants in the area (Hance 2011b). In addition
for data download and batteries packaged into to a number of initiatives highlighting the
one integrated unit. Sky orientation of the pro t est s by t he e nvir o nme n tal l obby,
functional unit for satellite detection was representations were made by the environmental
achieved by a counterweight. Collars that organizations to the US embassy in Sri Lanka to
became non-functional were not removed, as it bring pressure on Dole. Consequently a meeting
was determined that the risk to the elephant and was called with the mediation of the US embassy
collaring team in tranquilization was not where one of the main points raised was the radio
acceptable for the purpose of collar removal. tracking data which clearly demonstrated that
Collar belting usually degraded and broke off the plantation area was heavily utilized by a
within a period of 2-4 years. tracked adult female and her herd of about 50
Collars were programmed to collect GPS individuals (Figure 1). Subsequently Dole
locations every 4 or 8 hours and transmit the data representatives accepted their error and agreed to
WILDLANKA [Vol. 3, No 113
pull out (Hance, 2011c), thus preventing a non- on the premise that an elephant wading through
viable development that would have been the water and coming upto the fence would
extremely detrimental to elephant conservation. receive an amplified shock, increasing the
efficiency of the fence.
Case Study 2 – Mattala International Airport However, from the tracking data it was
When the Mattala International Airport was clear that this entirely obstructed the movement
constructed, the tracking data was presented to of elephants from the western side of the MER
the EIA committee demonstrating the extensive to the east, hence would lead to elephants
use of the site and surrounding area by elephants. breaking the fence or suffering from range loss
As a result, the Mattala Managed Elephant (Figure 2). Consequently the tracking data was
Range (MER)was incorporated in the EIA presented to the Airport Authority and they
report, thus highlighting the fact that the airport were requested to pull the fence 500 m back
was entirely within elephant habitat. from the Malala-Ara. After much discussion,
Secondly, the Airport Authority was tasked the Airport Authority agreed to move the fence
with taking appropriate action to prevent HEC as 125 m. Upon this change, the tracking data
a condition of project implementation by the confirmed that elephants were using the
Central Environmental Authority. Consequently corridor thus created to cross from one side to the
one of the first activities in constructing the other (Figure 2). Thus, in this instance, the
airport was the erection of an electric fence on its tracking data enabled modifying a
boundary by the Airport Authority under the development activity so as to reduce the
advice of the DWC. The fence was constructed detrimental effect on elephants and prevent
with one end bordering the Malala - Ara creek, genesis of HEC.
FIGURE 1: Map showing tracking data for Soma – a female in a herd of about 50 elephants, and the location of the
Dole farm. Blue dots – GPS positions for Soma.
March, 2015] 14
Case Study 3 – Mattala MER counts conducted by DWC and the Open
An area of approximately 12,000 ha was University determined that there were 106
developed in the South of Sri Lanka for irrigated elephants in the drive area encompassing
agriculture under the Walawe Left Bank Weerawila, Bundala, Hambantota, Ridiyagama
Development Project. The project was planned and Mattala, going up to the Udawalawe-
in the 1970s and even at that time it was realized Thanamalwila road to the North and the
that implementation of an irrigation project of Thanamalwila-Weerawila road to the east.
this scale within elephant range would cause The drive was commenced in 2005 and took
HEC. Therefore, one of the conditions of project 1.5 years to complete. Around 225 elephants
implementation was the mitigation of HEC. were driven into Lunugamvehera and fenced in.
Workshops conducted with the participation However, the drive failed to reduce HEC in the
of the DWC, Mahaweli Authority and the development area and subsequent assessment
funding agency JBIC determined that the best based on photographic identification revealed
course of action was to drive all the elephants in that there were over 400 elephants still left in the
and around the area into Lunugamvehera drive area.
National Park. Surveys based on water hole M o ni to r in g o f t h e e le p h an t s i n
FIGURE 2: Satellite image showing the tracking data (coloured dots) and the corridor that was blocked by the
airport electric fence. Yellow line – original location of electric fence. Black line- revised fence. Double blue line
Malala-Ara creek. White arrows indicate the movement pattern of elephants.
WILDLANKA [Vol. 3, No 1
Lunugamvehera indicated that elephants driven Lunugamvehera National Parks and migrated
out of their home ranges and confined to parks between them, the DWC proposed to connect
did not adapt. They as well as elephants that were the two parks with a 500 m corridor through the
previously resident in the park suffered from loss Mattala area. However, radio-tracking data of the
of body condition and increased morbidity and herds and males showed that the elephants were
mortality as a result of exceeding the carrying resident in thearea encompassing Kadawara,
capacity of the park by the elephants driven in. Wilmanne, Bundala, Hambantota, Mirrijjawila,
In a revised elephant management plan based Keligama, Gonnoruwa, Handilla, Ketanwewa,
on traditional beliefs and the premise that the Ellalla, Kuda-indiwewa, Badagiriya, Mattala,
elephants in the area utilized Bundala and Bodagama and Mahagalwewa going up to the
FIGURE 3: Map showing radio-tracking data for the elephants in the Mattala area and the area initially identified
as a Managed Elephant Range (MER). The different coloured dots represent GPS positions for different elephants
representing both herds and individual males.
March, 2015] 16
Udawalawe-Thanamalwila road to the north and mitigating HEC through community based
the Thanamalwila-Weerawila road to the east, electric fencing to protect settlements and paddy
and that they utilized the entire area (Figure 3). fields.
At this time the entire area was zoned for
development under the Greater Hambantota
Development Plan by the Urban Development
Authority based on a Strategic Environmental
Assessmentconducted under the auspices of the
Central Environmental Authority. Presentation
of the tracking data to the assessment team
resulted in alteration of the zoning plan to
accommodate elephant needs by inclusion of a
'Managed Elephant Reserve' (MER) in the
zoning plan. The area zoned as the MER covered
most of the habitat heavily utilized by the herds
excluding a portion in the south consisting of the
port development area (Figure 3). The only
major development within the zoned area was
the Mattala Rajapakse International Airport.
At present, theMERhas not yet been gazetted
as such. However a number of activities such as
construction of a perimeter fence and protection
of villages and paddy fields within the area with
permanent and season al electric fences However,due to public and political pressure,
respectively are being implemented, and the area and generally held belief s o f elephant
has been further refined according to tracking movement, the management approach followed
data and included in the latest elephant in the northwest has been to limit elephants to
management plan proposed by the DWC (Peiris DWC protected areas. To this end, elephant
2014). Most importantly, viewing of driving the drives have been conducted almost annually for
elephants out of their home ranges in the MERas decades. They have completely failed to limit
a management measure has ceased. Thus in this elephants to the DWC protected areas. Due to the
instance the tracking data was able to guide both regular exposure to drives, which in effectsubject
development and management so as to prevent elephants to intense prolonged conflict, HEC has
genesis of HEC and minimize detrimental effects continued to escalate.
on elephants, thus ensuring better conservation. The most recent management plan proposed
by the DWC (Peiris 2014) follows the same
Case Study 4 – Elephant Management in the approach with elephants to be driven out of their
Northwest home ranges and limited to two areas (Fig. 4).
The Northwest of Sri Lanka arguably has the The radio tracking data shows that this approach
highest level of HEC. Surveys of elephant will split the home range of a number of herds
distribution and radio-tracking of a number of and cause the loss of significant extents of the
herds and adult males over the last two decades home ranges of most herds (Fig. 4). If this plan is
has clearly shown that elephants utilize an successfully implemented it will result in the
extensive area in the northwest, over 90% of death of the majority of elephant herds in the
which is outside protected areas of the DWC northwest. However, the practical impossibility
(Figure 4). Therefore, the data indicate that of effectively implementing such a plan means
management should focus on managing that it is likely to only result in confining a few
elephants where they are, by effectively herds to DWC areas where they will starve to
FIGURE 4: Map showing tracking data of elephants in
the Northwest and the areas to which the elephants are
to be confined to (areas enclosed by the heavy black
line). The different coloured dots represent GPS
positions for different elephants, consisting of six
females representing herds and three individual males.
WILDLANKA [Vol. 3, No 117
death, and increasing the aggressiveness of all patterns, resource utilization and habitat
elephants left behind, leading to even more occupancy based on anecdotal evidence, cursory
severe HEC. observations and general beliefs are often times
very far from reality.
DISCUSSION Basing management decisions on such
The key cause of HEC is the conducting of fragmentary and unreliable information can be
developmental activities in areas with elephants, very harmful to elephant conservation and lead
without any consideration of elephant resource to the escalation of HEC rather than its
use and movement patterns and completely resolution. Management actions such as
devoid of appropriate safeguards to prevent translocation of problem elephants (Fernando et
elephant depredation and HEC mitigation. Such al. 2012),elephant drives and construction of
dev e l opmen t s rang e f rom m e g a-sc a l e electric fences on administrative boundaries, are
developments like irrigation development the mainstay of traditional elephant management
projects, to medium scale developments such as across Asian elephant range. However they tend
construction of small 'tanks', to small scale to increase the conflict through disturbance of
developments represented by encroachments by elephant behaviour, making elephants more
individual farmers. One of the main reasons for aggressive towards people. They are also
this shirking of responsibility on the part of extremely detrimental to elephant conservation
developers is the absence of actual data of due to the negative effects of disruption of
elep ha nt mo vements a nd re source use, elephant movement and resource use patterns on
especially outside the protected areas. the well being and survival of elephants.
Another significant contributory factor is the The key to conducting development while
widely held view that HEC mitigation is the sole minimizing and preventing HEC and conserving
responsibility of the DWC. However, this is a elephants, is obtaining data of the actual
com p l etel y irra t iona l and i m prac t i cal resource, habitat and landscape use patterns of
expectation given the geographic and temporal elephants and using it to guide development and
scale of HEC, as well as the main cause of its management. The only way of obtaining this
genesis, which is development. On the other information is through radio telemetry.
hand, as case studies 1 to 3 clearly demonstrate,
obtaining actual information of resource use and ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
movement patterns of elephants and providing We thank the Department of Wildlife
the stakeholders of development with such Co n s e r v a t i o n ( D W C ) S r i L a n k a f o r
information can effectively guide development collaboration and DWC officers for helping with
activities to minimize detrimental effects on fieldwork, especially the collaring of elephants.
elephants as well as prevent and reduce HEC Financial support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife
effectively. Service Asian Elephant Conservation Fund,
The second reason for the failure of elephant Abraham Fo un dation, S idney S . B ye rs
conservation and HEC mitigation is the Charitable Trust, Eco Health Alliance, Friends of
neglecting to take elephant behaviour and the National Zoo (FONZ), Circus Knie,
ecology into consideration when planning Smithsonian Women's Committee, Vontobel
management activities. Unlike African savannah Stiftung and PAM-WCP Project of the DWC is
elephants, Asian elephants mainly occupy low gratefully acknowledged.
visibility habitats such as thick scrub and dense
secondary forests. Asian elephants are also REFERENCES
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WILDLANKA [Vol. 3, No 119
Received: 01 March 2015.
Accepted: 15 March 2015.
... Agricultural expansions for subsistence food requirements and cash crop plantations in or adjoining prime elephant habitats have been negatively impacting the survival of elephants in anthropogenic habitats, leading to intense humanelephant conflicts (Graham, Notter, Adams, Lee, & Ochieng, 2010;Kumar, Mudappa, & Raman, 2010;Madhusudan, 2003). increased use of coffee and monoculture refuges and reduced access to natural vegetation habitats for elephants in the second year; this also resulted in an escalation of human-elephant conflict, by deflecting elephants' movements into neighboring anthropogenic areas, as also noticed elsewhere (Fernando et al., 2015). Moreover, reactive measures of elephant drive operations in the face of increased conflict may have adverse impacts on behavior and physiology of elephants (Kumar & Singh, 2010;Vijayakrishnan, Kumar, Umapathy, Kumar, & Sinha, 2018). ...
Full-text available
Understanding the impacts of land-use mosaics on elephant distribution and the patterns of habitat use is essential for their conservation in modified landscapes. We carried out a study in 205 villages, covering 610 km² of plantation–agriculture–forest mosaic of Hassan–Madikeri divisions in southern India, an area of intense human–elephant interactions. We monitored elephant movements, crop damage incidents, and human casualties on a daily basis for a 2-year period (2015–2017) to understand the patterns of elephant distribution across the landscape and habitat-use patterns, resulting in 1,117 GPS locations across six major habitats. Elephants were distributed across the landscape in the first year, but a high concentration of locations were noticed toward northern part of the study area during the second year, owing to clear felling of trees and installation of barriers around coffee plantations, causing an overall shift in their distribution. Investigations into habitat use by elephants revealed that during the day, elephants preferred monoculture refuges of acacia, eucalyptus, and so on, and forest fragments, avoiding reservoir, coffee, roads, and habitations. At night, agricultural lands were used more frequently while moving between refuges compared with forest fragments and habitations. Seasonally, forest fragments and agriculture were used significantly more during dry and wet, respectively. Across years, use of monoculture refuges and coffee increased with a corresponding decrease in the use of forest fragments and agriculture. In areas devoid of forest habitats, retention of monoculture refuges which provide shelter for elephants and facilitating free movement through open habitats may help minimize human–elephant conflict and promote coexistence in such land-use mosaics.
... To be effective, management needs to be based on actual data on elephants rather than beliefs and traditional practices. Radio tracking data is invaluable in assessing the effectiveness of management actions and their impact on elephants (Fernando et al. 2003), and in guiding development to prevent creating HEC and its escalation (Fernando et al. 2015). Radio-tracking around 250 elephants outside protected areas in the next few years would provide a definitive map of elephantuse areas and movement patterns. ...
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Human-elephant conflict (HEC) threatens the survival of endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Translocating "problem-elephants" is an important HEC mitigation and elephant conservation strategy across elephant range, with hundreds translocated annually. In the first comprehensive assessment of elephant translocation, we monitored 16 translocations in Sri Lanka with GPS collars. All translocated elephants were released into national parks. Two were killed within the parks where they were released, while all the others left those parks. Translocated elephants showed variable responses: "homers" returned to the capture site, "wanderers" ranged widely, and "settlers" established home ranges in new areas soon after release. Translocation caused wider propagation and intensification of HEC, and increased elephant mortality. We conclude that translocation defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.
Dole responds to allegations it is illegally growing bananas in National Park. 2.10
  • J Hance
Hance, J.(2011b). Dole responds to allegations it is illegally growing bananas in National Park. 2.10.2011. http:// n e w s. m o n g a b a y. c o m / 2 0 11 / 1 0 0 2hance_dole.html
Multi Disciplinary Approach to Control the Human Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka. Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri Lanka
  • U K L Peiris
Peiris, U.K.L.(2014). Multi Disciplinary Approach to Control the Human Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka. Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri Lanka.