Meera Bhardwaj:

Radio collaring of elephants is a highly risky job, however, in the wake of Haridwar Maha Kumbh-2021, efforts are on to collar identified bull elephants and study their movement and ranging patterns at the landscape level. Till now, two elephants have been collared, however, one of them was electrocuted subsequently. Scientists are focusing on assessing their interface with humans in the Haridwar forest division and Rajaji Tiger Reserve. 

In fact, the “Pilgrim Route” is the same as the “Elephant Route” in an area of 20-25 kilometers.

Presently, radio collaring of a few elephants out of 22-25 is being done by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in coordination with Uttarakhand Forest Department. These scientific studies will not only help in taking advance mitigation measures by forest officials during the huge congregation of people for the MahaKumbh at Haridwar but also tackle human-elephant conflicts in this region. With the help of satellites, the elephants can be regularly tracked, monitored and sent back from the conflict areas to the forests.

Out of the two collared elephants, unfortunately the first elephant that was tagged on 15 October died due to electrocution in a farmland. But in a month’s time, lot of information was gathered on its movements and behavior. 

On 24 December, a second elephant was successfully darted and tagged before it was released back in the wild. Speaking to Green Minute, Uttarakhand Chief Wildlife Warden J S Suhag said elephants move across the Ganga while a few of them can be seen in private lands adjoining the river. They generally stay there and so; no crops are grown. Their movement has been observed often as there are abundant fields in an island whose area is small.

The study project is headed by Dr Bivash Pandav, Scientist and Faculty Member, Wildlife Institute of India (WII). Having the Western most distribution of Asiatic elephants, the forests from Yamuna (west) to Sharada (east) has the highest and healthiest population of elephants. In the last few months, 22 male elephants have been identified which he says are peaceful and pretty timid, not attacking people and only have raided crops in human dominated landscapes. 

These animals move in 3-5 groups, sometimes 7 also. Out of this, about 6-7 animals will be radio collared. The pachyderms usually come out in the cover of darkness and avoid daylight. 

Dr Pandav explains darting and collaring one of them is not easy as they are with 3-4 other bulls. Further, these are very linear landscapes – not very wide, very narrow. And they live in forests where people are not seen. “The ratio of male/female is good but we are seeing a unique phenomenon – all male groups. Some 18-20 bulls come out of forests and venture out to fulfill their nutritional requirements. This is happening regularly – visiting paddy/sugarcane fields that incidentally overlaps the MahaKumbh area, 20-25 kilometers, downstream of Haridwar. Not just camp sites, some of them venture into Haridwar city.”

The radio collaring operations are led by Captain Dr Parag Nigam, Scientist and Faculty member, WII in the presence of Neeraj Sharma, DFO, Haridwar forest division. On 24 December, the WII researchers along with tracking team and frontline forest staff finished the darting and collaring operations of another elephant successfully within an hour in Dassowala area of Haridwar. There are huge risks involved both to humans and elephants in such operations.

Dr Nigam elaborates, “Definitely, such operations are difficult, we have scientists, biologists as also two trackers from the South. Lot of precautions needed as it is thick vegetation and darting the animal is difficult. It took us almost 16 days to capture with support from forest department. For darting, we have not used a common drug but a narcotic, much more refined version is being used. In one hour, darting/collaring was done including tests and a health status check while reversal was less than a minute.”

In the last six months, monitoring is being done on probable routes as it is a cause for concern to the local people, the chief wildlife warden adds. “We have identified two herds – 11 in one and 13 in the second one. Although there is no need for collaring all, we are supposed to collar 10. The collared animal will be monitored through satellites. We have set up control rooms for monitoring across sensitive areas while solar fencing has already been done at two places. In the rest, it will be done soon. We have 12 teams and volunteers in villages so as to divert the elephants from pilgrim routes. Even after the MahaKumbh, this behavioral study will continue till 2022 for tackling conflicts.”

The 35-year-old elephant that was collared on 15th October died due to electrocution on November 24 in a farmland in Bishanpur Kundi village when it came in contact with a transformer. Dr Nigam states, “We have gathered lot of information from the satellite collar of this elephant. But its electrocution was a big jolt for us. Presently, we don’t know much about their movements in this landscape. Now with collaring, how they use the landscape will lead to evolving proper strategies for drawing up mitigation plans.”

WII researchers conclude the study will involve knowing the elephants’ behavior and gaining knowledge on why they move in a specific place. Further, it will become easier for forest department to plan advance mitigation strategies like erection of fences and block access so that they are deflected from human settlements. Also, their entry into Kumbh camp sites have to be avoided during the Mela. There is also a need to understand their behavior in human use areas as only bulls venture to raid crops while the females remain inside the forest.