Endangered elephants’ outlook bleak without more room to roam

By Mickie Anderson

Intelligent and beautiful, the Asian elephant is running out of time unless humans step aside and give it some room.

Shrinking habitat and conflicts with humans could hurt the endangered elephant’s numbers and throw the species’ viability into question. In a study in the journal Biological Conservation, University of Florida researchers looked at what must happen for the species to avoid extinction.

The researchers created a population model to look at future land- and human-conflict scenarios the elephants might encounter, to determine what kind of effect shrinking acreage set aside solely for elephants and other wildlife would have in conjunction with increasing instances of human-elephant conflict.

They simulated elephant populations over a 500-year period and found scenarios that led to more than 90 percent decreases in elephant population during that time span. Scientists term that kind of population drop “quasi-extinction.”

They found that even moderate levels of conflicts with humans led to large drops in elephant numbers, and those problems got worse as humans and elephants continued to occupy the same spaces.

“One of our findings is that if human-caused elephant deaths continue to increase, elephant populations will not do well in the long term. They’ll need more and more space free of human habitation. That’s a really tough task in countries like India, where you have high densities of people and limited space,” said Varun Goswami, the study’s lead author. “Therefore it’s imperative that human-elephant conflict is effectively managed.”

Elephants are large and their space and food needs are, too, Goswami said.

Farmers whose crops are trampled and homes damaged by elephants are understandably unhappy, he said, and often retaliate. Sometimes people chase the elephants away — or worse.

The population-model study showed that if the Asian elephant is to survive, even small increases in conflict-induced elephant deaths must be offset by having more “inviolate” habitat set aside solely for the pachyderms.

That’s not easy, however, in the world’s second-most-populated country.

Residents often try crude measures, such as flashlights that scare elephants, or fences made of hot pepper, to try to keep the animals off small farms, but those measures don’t always work.

Insurance policies that give agricultural producers better compensation for elephant-induced damage could help, he said.

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