Indian elephants are spending more time on defending themselves against human onslaughts than feeding and relaxing because of fragmentation of their habitat, a study conducted by nine wildlife research institutes in India has revealed.
Population of Asian elephants has been increasing (from about 19,000 in 2002 to about 27,000 in 2007) despite their living areas getting reduced due to anthropologic pressures and development. The study published in Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE made an attempt to understand how elephants adapted to the dramatic changes in the habitat and came out with some eye-opening findings.
“The proportion of time spent on feeding reduced from 54.08 % in low human-disturbance areas to 26.44 % in high human disturbance areas,” said the study based on analysis of behavior of 60 elephants in 182 sq km at the Bannerghatta National Park in southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Less time spent on feeding didn’t result in rest. In fact, it meant the elephants were more on move for 64 % of their time in high human disturbance areas. In comparison, places where human interference was less, they walked just for around 29 % of their time, thus, getting more rest and time to feed.
The study also observed that elephants were spent more time “standing alert” and “usually froze” as a first reaction to close proximity with humans, while they waited for the perceived threat to pass. The study also broke the myth that elephants attack in retaliation saying that most of the times it is in “self-defence.”
When the danger surmounts the elephants take quick decisions by breaking into smaller groups to minimize the loss and reduce chances of detectability, a view confirmed in other studies also. “The elephants in the study area actively reduced their group size not only in relation to reduction in resource availability but also to increasing human disturbance,” the study of Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, School of Natural Sciencs and Engineering and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research said.
Establishing the finding of elephant task force in 2010 that lack of resources and human interference can impact their physiology, the study said their audible vocalization gets reduced in highly human disturbed areas especially during crop raiding by them or movement through ramping cattle grazing areas.
Such high disturbances also impact sexual behavior with the male elephants not able to improve their fitness to claim a dominant position in the herd. The female elephants, on the other hand, prefer low disturbance areas for copulating, the study said, adding that more research needs to be conducted on this aspect of the impact.
“The Asian elephants are clearly a species that display extensive social behavior, complex cognitive abilities and sophisticated decision making processes,” the study concluded, while urging the policy makers to look at more science based management plan aimed to conserve the endangered species.