DNA analysis, camera trapping for new elephant census
India will embark on a first scientific estimation of its elephant population next year, using DNA analysis of dung samples, camera trapping, and statistical modelling, following a process similar to that used in the quadrennial tiger count.
India does have an elephant census, but this is largely a headcount of elephants in various elephant habitats conducted by state forest departments. The last one was carried out in 2017 and concluded that India has at least 27,000 elephants.
“Head count is not a scientific method for population estimation. We have realised that we can conduct a very scientific population estimation if we followed estimation methods used for tigers and leopards. So now we will apply a statistical framework and conduct double sampling. First ground surveys will be conducted, indirect elephant signs will be recorded like broken branches, footprints, dung etc. Camera trapping will also be conducted along with DNA analysis of dung samples. Then the numbers will be extrapolated to give a range for each region. Such a scientific method will definitely improve our understanding of elephants and the issues facing them,” said SP Yadav, member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority and head of Central Zoo Authority.
According to the new estimation methodology released on Thursday on the occasion of World Elephant Day, the process “involves rigorous statistical analyses of ground data on animal signs, human impacts, habitat attributes and absolute density”. The methodology adds that the process will involve three phases: ground surveys, analyses of remotely sensed data and camera traps. “Elephant populations using this method will be assessed for first time. The procedure is routinely used for estimating tiger and leopard populations in India.”
The 2017 elephant census results revealed that the distribution range of elephants in the country had expanded and many states that never had any elephants were recording elephant presence. Elephant populations were reported for the first time from Manipur, Mizoram, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Andaman and Nicobar.
“We know that the distribution is expanding. There are 40 to 50 elephants in Madhya Pradesh which never had elephants. Chhattisgarh also has a sizeable number of resident elephants now which possibly moved from neighbouring Jharkhand. Elephants may be moving to new areas under stress or because they are being driven out by people,” explained Yadav adding that these trends will also be studied. “Elephants are like engineers of the jungle. They manipulate habitat, pulverise soil which helps the forest ecology.”
“There has been a need to harmonise population estimation methods along more scientific lines. The @moefcc for the first time is converging elephant & tiger population estimation. On #WorldElephantDay, released the protocol for the exercise,” Bhupender Yadav, union environment minister tweeted.
Asian elephants are listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. That’s because most states except India, have lost their viable elephant populations due to loss of habitat and poaching. The current population estimates indicate that there are about 50,000 -60000 Asian elephants in the world. More than 60 % of the population is held in India.
In 2020, 87 elephants and 359 people died in human-elephant conflicts; the corresponding numbers for 2019-20 were 19 elephants and 585 people according to MoEFCC’s reply to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha last week on human-elephant conflict.