Sunday, July 14, 2019

Tiger Conservation: Elephant Migration in Central India

Mystery Migration Indian Elephants

Elephants have been recorded in Central India or Madhya Pradesh historically and evidence in form of craftsmanship (Artifacts) is suggestive of their presence rather strongly well back in time. Though no earlier in sightings have been recorded in MP except incrusions in Surguja District now a part of neighboring Chhattisgarh State, a very recent surprise incursion has taken place into the dense confines of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve a part of Central India. Recent news is suggestive of their movement into Kanha National Park as well some 200 km from Bandhavgarh.    

Wild Elephants

The reason for migration would be competition among the herds and or search for new pastures. These mammals have an indelible memory bank and finding erstwhile routes is not difficult. Their instincts could also have lead them here. Already two calves have been born at Bandhavgarh.   

Understanding The Ecology & Impact

Elephants are mega herbivores  and consume more than 100 species of plant matter including tree barks, leaves and soft branches. In general they are grazers and browsers and food selection is due to abundance and season. In one day an adult may consume about 150 kgs of  plant material including tall grass. 

Now wild elephants arrival to Central Indian Forests is good news but their is a catch. If these pachyderms have found back their erstwhile home their arrival though not marked with pessimism  will be a matter of some serious study. Their arrival has to be seen with a bit of caution. 

The reason for this circumspect approach is due to shrunken ecosystem that now prevails in the present as compared with the past whence there was no shortage of forest cover. In these times competition for fodder would be serious in areas with robust prey base.

The pachyderms are rapacious feeders and consume almost hundred and fifty kilo grams of food comprising of plant matter, bamboo and grass. Though the number of migrants is small compared to the area, the increase in population and further migration could add to immense biotic pressure and pose a severe threat to herbivores which cannot compete with these large mammals.     

In time to come animals like Swamp Deer, and spotted deer would face severe pressure the former being a total graminivore. Pressure would also be upon the bison or gaur. These animals constitute main prey base of the tiger. Hence the tiger breeding will be reduced for there is a co-relation between availability of food and procreation among the carnivores. During the summers there will be increased competition for scarce water as well.

All this may not happen immediately but will certainly happen in the future. It is up to the field biologists to make an extensive study and come to the right conclusion. All factors have to be taken into account and carefully calibrated.   

It is too early to predict the outcome since the pachyderms may prefer to stay in an area where they may not create competition or they may migrate or make local migration reducing the area of impact.. If they begin the migration process with a period spent here they may not cause pressure enough to create competition. 

With massive clearance of forests the paradigm has changed and long term impact will have to be taken into account. In areas already sustaining large populations of elephants the plant matter consumed without exhausting the ecosystem may not be present in the tiger reserves of  Central India.

Uday works as a naturalist and blogs on conservation in India.