Assam's forest department is planning to collar at least five elephants in high-conflict habitats in the coming months. What is radio-collaring, what are the challenges involved, and can it really help?
Last week, a wild elephant was radio-collared for the first time in Assam’s Sonitpur district by the state’s Forest Department, in collaboration with NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India. The joint initiative is being described as a step to study and mitigate human-elephant conflict in the state. Experts say the exercise is challenging, and even runs the risk of having a low success rate. Yet, the forest department is planning to collar at least five elephants in high-conflict habitats in the coming months. What is radio-collaring, what are the challenges involved, and can it really help?
What are radio-collars?
Radio collars are GPS-enabled collars that can relay information about an elephants’ whereabouts. They weigh roughly 8 kg and are fitted around the elephant’s neck. According to a WWF blog, collaring includes identifying a suitable candidate (generally an adult elephant), darting it with a sedative, and fitting a collar around the elephant’s neck, before the animal is revived.
Additionally, the team also attaches an accelerometer to the collar to “understand what exactly an elephant is doing at any given time (running, walking, eating, drinking, etc)”.
How does radio-collaring help?
The objectives are twofold, M K Yadava, Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam said. “Information from the GPS would help us track and study the movement patterns of the herd, across regions and habitats,” he said. Added Hiten Baishya of the WWF, “We will know where they are moving, which corridors they frequent, if the habitat is sufficient, if it needs protection, etc.” This would help in understanding what is driving the conflict.
The second objective is incidental, said Yadava. The collars would serve as an early warning system, and if people know which direction an elephant is moving, they can prepare accordingly. “Villagers and forest officials will know about approaching elephants… very much how weather forecasting works. And this would help mitigate conflict incidents,” said veterinarian and elephant expert Kushal Konwar Sharma, who is involved in the exercise.
However, the main objective is long-term study of movement patterns, says experts. “Gradually, as habitats are shrinking and traditional corridors are not in use anymore, it is imperative to study the range of travels and make an inventory of the new habitats. This is where collaring can come in,” said another forest department official, requesting anonymity.
What is the plan in Assam?
In March 2020, the Ministry of Environment of Forest & Climate Change, gave approval to collar five elephants in Sonitpur and Biswanath districts in Assam, stating a number of conditions, among them being “minimum trauma” to the elephants during the operation and submission of regular periodic reports.
Yadava said the department aimed at collaring eleven elephants across the landscape in the future. “We have eleven elephant herds to be tracked in high human elephant-conflict areas. These include areas in Sonitpur, Golaghat, Nagaon, Goalpara, Udalguri, among others,” he said. He added that there was no time frame involved since this was such a “delicate and complicated” exercise.
Is it easy collaring an elephant?
Not at all. Experts say it is an extremely time-consuming and challenging exercise. “We first have to identify the matriarch of the herd we will tag… identification alone takes time and involves us stalking them for days,” said the elephant expert Sarma, adding that there were “practical challenges” in tagging them too.
“We don’t have helicopters and other sophisticated equipment to approach elephants to tranquillise them. We go by foot. There is risk — for both our life and the elephant’s life. But we have very skilled experts on board and they are doing the job with utmost care,” added Baishya. When the approval comes from the Centre, we take into account all the conditions and follow them all, he added.
Any other challenges/drawbacks?
Officials said all components for radio collaring are not available in India, including collars and tranquilising drugs. These have to be imported and are quite expensive.
Baishya said they also have to take into account that elephants grow in size. “Collars may become tight, so we usually take a senior elephant so there is less chance of growth,” he said.
The state’s topography too, marked by hills and rivers, including the Brahmaputra that runs across it, can be a challenge. “Each state has its own peculiar problems. We have elephants that are long ranging, and have a diverse topography,” said Yadava.
“Many times elephants are not able to keep the collar on. They will have it on for maximum six months, before it falls off,” said Bibhuti Lahkar, a senior scientist with Guwhati-based conservation NGO Aaranyak. He added that there may be technical glitches with the device too.
In Assam, too, an elephant who had strayed from the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, that borders Guwahati, into the city in 2019, was radio-collared on a trial basis last year. “We monitored it for a month, but due to the weight of the belt and elephant brushing against trees, the signal was feeble and ultimately the collar fell off,” said a forest official, who did not want to be named.
So is it worth it?
Yadava added that while there were risks and the success rate was low, there has been no better mechanism (other than collaring) to study conflict long term.
Lahkar said that in Africa, such an exercise had worked well.
“Of course, the terrain is different here and may prove to be more difficult, but it is worth doing it,” he said, adding that if it works well, and if even six out of ten elephants are collared, it would yield “lots of information”.
Collaring has been attempted in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu too.
How bad is human-elephant conflict in Assam?
From 2010-2019, 761 people and 249 elephants were killed in Assam as a direct consequence of human-elephant conflict, stated the WWF blog.
“More than 65 per cent of the habitat north of the river has been lost in the past few decades to agriculture and settlements, and conflict between humans and elephants has been steadily increasing ever since,” it said.
Yadava said there are currently about 6,000 wild elephants in Assam.
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