"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Study: elephant fiasco shows moving truck no “panacea” for wildlife troubles

Dec. 13, 2012
Courtesy of 
and World Science staff

Hop­ing to curb vi­o­lence be­tween grow­ing hu­man popul­ati­ons and nearby-dwelling ele­phants, au­thor­i­ties in Sri Lanka have opted for a seem­ingly sim­ple so­lu­ti­on. Move the an­i­mals to some­where nice where they can live out of peo­ple’s way.

But they did­n’t count on one thing: that huge an­i­mals, some of which aren’t very hap­py with hu­mans in the first place, might just not want to be forcibly re­lo­cat­ed. And that this might lead to even more con­flicts and kill­ings—an out­come found in a new study.

Sci­en­tists say the find­ings show that the mov­ing truck, in­creas­ingly looked to as a hu­mane “panacea” for wild­life prob­lems, is not that easy an­swer.

“There are many on­go­ing transloc­ati­on pro­jects based on the as­sump­ti­on that this tech­nique is ef­fec­tive, and our joint study is the first com­pre­hen­sive as­sess­ment of wheth­er that’s true,” said Pe­ter Leim­gru­ber, a col­la­bo­ra­tor in the work and a re­search sci­ent­ist at the Smith­so­nian Con­serv­ati­on Bi­ol­o­gy In­sti­tute in Front Roy­al, Va. 

“We were stunned that transloc­ati­on nei­ther solves the con­flict nor saves ele­phants.” 

Get­ting the ele­phants to their in­tend­ed new home ranges is not the prob­lem; tran­quil­iz­ers do won­ders in that de­part­ment. The is­sue is get­ting them to stay there.

“Most of these ele­phants did­n’t stay put; they left the re­loc­ati­on ar­ea and ven­tured back in­to ag­ri­cul­tur­al lands, caus­ing prob­lems,” said Prithivi­raj Fer­nan­do, a re­search as­so­ci­ate at in­sti­tute and lead au­thor of a re­port on the find­ings, pub­lished Dec. 7 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

The re­port notes hu­man-el­e­phant con­flict in Sri Lanka kills more than 70 hu­mans and 200 Asian ele­phants every year as hun­gry or rest­less beasts raid crops, break in­to homes and kill or in­jure peo­ple. Re­loc­ati­on is one of the most com­mon coun­ter­mea­sures, with the pachy­derms of­ten moved in­to n­ati­onal parks. 

Us­ing GPS col­lars, the re­search­ers mon­i­tored 12 trans­lo­cat­ed, adult male ele­phants and com­pared their move­ment and propens­ity for con­flict with 12 males left in their nor­mal home ranges. Be­fore the stu­dy, all of the moved ele­phants and 10 of the ele­phants left in their home ranges were con­sid­ered prob­lem ele­phants.

“As you track the ele­phants, you iden­ti­fy with these an­i­mals, you see their strug­gles and un­der­stand why they’re do­ing the things that ul­ti­mately get them killed,” Leim­gru­ber said. “But you al­so un­der­stand that ele­phants rep­re­sent a se­ri­ous threat to hu­mans and their liveli­hood.”

Two of the trans­lo­cat­ed creatures were killed with­in the nati­onal parks where they were re­leased, and the rest of the ele­phants left the parks with­in one to 260 days, the team found. Some of the ele­phants moved back to­ward their cap­ture site, they said, while oth­ers wan­dered over large dis­tances and a few set­tled close to the park where they were re­leased. But nearly all of the trans­lo­cat­ed ele­phants were found to be in­volved in hu­man-el­e­phant con­flict af­ter their re­lease, kill­ing five peo­ple over the time of the stu­dy. Five of the ele­phants al­so died with­in eight months of re­lease. The ele­phants left in their orig­i­nal home range killed no hu­mans though one was shot dead it­self, the study found.

Human-el­e­phant con­flict is a ma­jor con­serv­ati­on, so­ci­o­ec­onomic and po­lit­i­cal is­sue across Asian el­e­phant range in Asia and Af­ri­ca. It’s al­so one of the ma­jor threats to the sur­viv­al of Asian ele­phants, which are list­ed as en­dan­gered by the In­tern­ati­onal Un­ion for Con­serv­ati­on of Na­ture. Be­tween 35,000 and 50,000 Asian ele­phants are left in the wild. Across el­e­phant range hun­dreds of prob­lem ele­phants are trans­lo­cat­ed each year.

The pa­per’s au­thors sug­gest that rath­er than fo­cus on transloc­ati­on, land man­agers and con­serv­ati­onists need to im­ple­ment land-use plans that min­i­mize crop raid­ing and cre­ate mixed-use zones that both hu­mans and ele­phants can use, in additi­on to zones where only one or the oth­er is al­lowed.

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Hoping to curb violence between growing human populations and nearby-dwelling elephants, authorities in Sri Lanka have opted for a seemingly simple solution. Move the animals to somewhere nice where they can live out of people’s way. But they didn’t count on one thing: that huge animals, some of which aren’t very happy with humans in the first place, might just not want to be forcibly relocated. And that this might lead to even more conflicts and killings—as a new study has found. Scientists say the findings show that the moving truck, increasingly looked to as a humane “panacea” for wildlife problems, is not that easy answer. “There are many ongoing translocation projects based on the assumption that this technique is effective, and our joint study is the first comprehensive assessment of whether that’s true,” said Peter Leimgruber, a collaborator in the work and a research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. “We were stunned that translocation neither solves the conflict nor saves elephants.” Getting the elephants to their intended new home ranges is not the problem; tranquilizers do wonders in that department. The issue is getting them to stay there. “Most of these elephants didn’t stay put; they left the relocation area and ventured back into agricultural lands, causing problems,” said Prithiviraj Fernando, a research associate at institute and lead author of a report on the findings, published Dec. 7 in the research journal PLoS One. The report notes human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka kills more than 70 humans and 200 Asian elephants every year as hungry or restless elephants raid crops, break into homes and kill or injure people. Relocation is one of the most common countermeasures, with the pachyderms often moved into national parks. Using GPS collars, the researchers monitored 12 translocated, adult male elephants and compared their movement and propensity for conflict with 12 males left in their normal home ranges. Before the study, all of the translocated elephants and 10 of the elephants left in their home ranges were considered problem elephants. Two of the translocated animals were killed within the national parks where they were released, and the rest of the elephants left the parks within one to 260 days, the team found. Some of the elephants moved back toward their capture site, they said, while others wandered over large distances and a few settled close to the park where they were released. But nearly all of the translocated elephants were found to be involved in human-elephant conflict after their release, killing five people over the time of the study. Five of the elephants also died within eight months of release. The elephants left in their original home range killed no humans though one of the beasts was shot dead, the study found. Human-elephant conflict is a major conservation, socioeconomic and political issue across Asian elephant range in Asia and Africa. It’s also one of the major threats to the survival of Asian elephants, which are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Between 35,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. Across elephant range hundreds of problem elephants are translocated each year. “As you track the elephants, you identify with these animals, you see their struggles and understand why they’re doing the things that ultimately get them killed,” Leimgruber said. “But you also understand that elephants represent a serious threat to humans and their livelihood.” The paper’s authors suggest that rather than focus on translocation, land managers and conservationists need to implement land-use plans that minimize crop raiding and create mixed-use zones that both humans and elephants can use, in addition to zones where only one or the other is allowed.