SUBJECT :On World Elephant Day, we look at how the animal has learnt to adapt to a crowded world 

By: Aathira Perinchery

August 12, 2018: On a clear, sunny morning in Tamil Nadu’s Valparai 15 years ago, M. Ananda Kumar was doing what he loved best: watching wild elephants at play. From his eagle’s eye view atop a small hillock more than 50 feet away, he could see the four young calves of the Step-Ear Herd (named after one of the older females whose frayed ear resembled a flight of steps) gambolling in the waters of Naduvar-Sholayar River. Slightly older juveniles ran among tea bushes pulling each others’ tails, while adult females of the 19-member herd looked on, grazing calmly.

But their destination lay ahead and the herd swam across the river to reach the tea estate on the opposite bank. The fun and frolic ceased as soon as they set foot here. Adults began trumpeting loudly and lifted their tails, behaviours that usually mark the presence of a predator. An alert Kumar scanned the area thoroughly to check for leopards or people, but there were none.

“The adults bunched together and began walking swiftly in tight circles with the calves at the centre,” recollects Kumar. “The herd displayed this behaviour several times in this estate. People had actively chased them away in the past here and obviously, they remembered it as they passed that way. Elephants change their behaviour based on where they are.”

In human-dominated areas that elephants frequent, scientists have noted not just deviations in pachyderm behaviour, but changes in their food preferences and physiology. Such ‘habitat generalists’ can adapt well to man-modified landscapes, argue Kumar and his colleagues in a recent article published in the international journal Tropical Conservation Science . So what then is elephant ‘habitat’? Can it include both natural and human-dominated areas, and how possible is it in today’s crowded world?

Field and forests

As far as crowded lands go, India ranks high on the list. And almost 70% of the population lives in villages, including those adjoining protected areas. Man-made, stone-marked borders — differentiating land that is ‘protected’ from that which is not — mean nothing for fauna, which spill over into adjoining fields and orchards.

Using mapping exercises in 2015, scientists found that 60% of Karnataka’s elephant distribution is outside protected areas.

It is now common knowledge, confirmed by studies, that elephants use non-protected, human-dominated areas such as coffee estates and rubber plantations as they move between fragmented forest patches. Many human-modified habitats (including monocultures of acacia and eucalyptus) have now become crucial refuges — and in that sense, ‘habitats’ — for elephants, as Kumar’s work in Karnataka’s Hassan district shows. Adding to these changes, pachyderms are now making do with scarce resources or adapting to new food resources in these areas.

Behavioural alterations include moving over human areas at night to reach rich pastures they would not be able to access during the day. And now, a team has found that these changes seep into elephant physiology too: in a recent study, scientists who studied stress levels by analysing hormones left behind in fresh elephant dung found that elephants in human-dominated regions had similar baseline stress levels as those dwelling in comparatively undisturbed forests. This suggests that elephants seem to have adapted to the stress in ‘human’ habitats.

So what makes elephants so adaptable? In 2014, a team of scientists found that African elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park can recognise the voices of two ethnic peoples who live there, the Maasai (who chase away elephant herds because they compete for resources with their livestock) and Kamba (who do not threaten elephants in any way). The team played recorded human voices — saying “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” — of both ethnic groups from a concealed loudspeaker and studied elephants’ reactions to this. The pachyderms formed tight circles in defence and kept smelling the air much more when Maasai voices were played. Astoundingly, the animals could even distinguish the voices of adult Maasai men from those of women and boys (the latter don’t pose significant threats).

Learning from matriarchs

While individual elephants could learn this from experience, social learning — where young elephants learn behaviours from matriarchs and older elephants — could be helping them adapt to humans, wrote ethologists Joshua Plotnik and Frans de Waal in 2017. According to them, recent studies put elephant social complexity on par with that of great apes; studies now reveal that elephants cooperate, empathise, problem-solve and recognise themselves in the mirror. Thus it is “not surprising that they are learning to adapt to their changing natural environments,” they write.

Understanding how elephants adapt to constantly-changing threats could be crucial in protecting the mammals in the wild. And if elephants primarily interact with the world using non-visual senses such as sound and smell as the African example shows, “the ‘human perspective’ for solving conservation problems may not be enough,” they add. This is a view that Kumar and his colleagues also hold.

“We are passing judgements, based completely on a human perspective,” says Kumar. “We think elephants should not be seen outside protected areas. We humans have already decided where animals should be.” But seeing wildlife from the perspective of both people and animals reveals a completely different picture. Both natural and anthropogenic habitats of elephants could be important to conserve the charismatic species.

And yet how practical is this? In principle, elephants can adapt “wonderfully” to human-dominated habitats including agricultural areas, agrees elephant biologist Raman Sukumar. “What about increasing conflicts with people when this happens?” he asks. “This adaptation comes at a huge cost, to both people and elephants. We have to plan where to let elephants wander and where not.”

On the other hand, changing the perception of what constitutes a habitat could be crucial to bring meaningful change in conservation, write Kumar and his colleagues.

One way to do this would be to involve people — researchers, conservation agencies, policy makers and citizens — in the process; communicating the beauty and ecological importance of wildlife in production landscapes would be critical to combat the thinking that wild animals should be restricted to forests alone.

The Step-Ear herd for one definitely doesn’t restrict itself to forests. Kumar and his team still follow and study the herd as it moves about the tea estates of Valparai. And even 15 years later, the pachyderms show high levels of agitation and unusual alertness in areas where they have learnt there could be trouble.

Source: The hindu