Conflict over jumbo census

  • Water-hole count enables population structure and composition assessment:DWC
  • Extent of occurrence, area of occupancy more relevant, says expert
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Futile and flawed, are how many experts called the much-trumpeted “elephant survey” carried out by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) which ended this morning. The danger of a flawed survey lies in the fact that it may be used as a planning tool for elephant management which in turn would then be questionable, stressed wildlife biologist Manori Gunawardena, explaining that the survey methodology does not take into account elephant behaviour.

Pointing out that although the elephants at Minneriya are very visible during the day, most elephants outside National Parks come out only in the night, she says that it is “very difficult to count them”.
Ms. Gunawardena should know as she has been studying the social behaviour and demography of elephants in the North Central Province for the past 12 years, getting muddy and grubby at many a waterhole including the Minneriya tank.

The DWC, however, claims in its ‘Survey of Elephants in Sri Lanka’ leaflet that its current venture is “known as the water-hole count”. The advantage of the water-hole count is that it enables the management authority to find out the population structure and composition in addition to numbers, according to the DWC.

“It will enable the DWC to determine the proportion of calves relative to the adult females and to identify and record the number of tuskers – the most vulnerable animals.”

Unless there is much practice and training and there are only one or two elephants it is impossible to put them into an “age class” or “size class”, says Ms. Gunawardena, citing the example of elephant herds coming to water at one point of a tank and then cutting across the forest later to get back to the water at a different point of the same tank. “Elephants keep crisscrossing all the time,” she said.

At Minneriya there may be high visibility and excellent observation conditions but take the case of a wewa outside the National Parks. Would it be possible to count a large number at night in the moonlight, and especially when they keep coming back to water, she asks, adding that a survey done without taking into account elephant behaviour movement is flawed.

Scientists also question the rationale of such a survey effort, when the concentration should be on identifying key areas that need conservation. An island-wide survey of elephant distribution and human-elephant conflict would be more relevant for management purposes, they say. Conservationists expressed fear that the survey was done to fulfil hidden agendas that are detrimental to conservation.

The Indian scientific community, meanwhile, has urged Sri Lanka not to get entrenched in the “water-hole count” methodology as they are desperate to dislodge it from government practice across there as it has failed, sources pointed out.

The Sunday Times learns that, the Co-Chairman of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Ajay A. Desai has expressed reservations about the water-hole count to many conservationists in Sri Lanka.
“Population estimation is best done using the most standardized methods i.e. line transect or dung count,” Dr. Desai has said in an e-mail, being extremely critical of “pointless and questionable methods” such as water-hole counts which have been tried and found to be failures in India. He has wondered why Sri Lanka is repeating the mistakes made by India.

Meanwhile, back in 2008 in ‘Gajah’, the Journal of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group (available online at PDFfiles/Gajah%2028% 20Aug%2008.pdf), another elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando had questioned the need to get the “number” of elephants in a country, region or for that matter globally.

Why do we need to know the ‘number’, Dr. Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research has questioned, explaining that as Asian elephants live in low visibility habitats and are secretive and largely nocturnal, the numbers are elusive. He also questions how we can use the ‘number’ to plan conservation strategies.

One of the pages of the document used by officers conducting the census

“Can we determine a-priori how many elephants we want to have in a country, will we cull them if there are more, or can we ask them to breed more if there are fewer?” he asked. Dr. Fernando who has been in the jungles, studying elephants for over 18 years states that counting of elephants is done in various ways that range from ‘quick and dirty’ to highly technical. It could be direct aerial, vehicle, foot and waterhole counts of elephants; indirect estimates based on sign, dung and footprints; and individual identification based on genetics or photography and mark-capture or rarefaction curves.

He states that counts are probably of value at local scales, for planning and monitoring the impact of management activities. However, it needs accuracy and precision, he cautions, warning that “unfortunately, the quick and dirty methods are neither accurate nor precise, so we have to rely on the more technical methods. These require a high degree of training, skill, expertise, funds, time and dedication.”

Dr. Fernando suggests that IUCN criteria such as ‘extent of occurrence’ and ‘area of occupancy’ are more relevant for management at country-wide scales than the elusive ‘number’. Around 4,000 people including 1,200 DWC staff undertook the survey after being stationed at “1,553 points” in the seven wildlife regions on the night of August 11, said a DWC spokesperson.

Each point was manned by a wildlife officer and two others or a wildlife officer and one other, who were on attala (platforms in trees) or close to the waterhole, armed with binoculars, a DWC spokesperson said, explaining that those who helped with the survey included students from the Rajarata and Peradeniya Universities, recruits from the Civil Defence Force and villagers in the area. In the north, the survey was carried out by DWC officials and soldiers.

The seven regions are north-western (Kurunegala, Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Vavuniya); Mahaweli (Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee, parts of Matale and Badulla); central; east; southern; Yala-Bundala; and north.

Referring to the modus operandi followed, the spokesperson said, on Thursday night they observed the elephants which came to the water-holes and the count proper began on Friday and Saturday, with the operation winding down this morning.

When asked whether there was the likelihood of one elephant being counted twice or more times, the spokesperson said it was unlikely. Those doing the survey were well-versed in taking down the vishesha lakshana (special features) and identifying each elephant from the shape of the ear, the placement of pigmentation (gomera), the tail details etc.

However, as most elephants come to water in the night, the practicality of this was questioned by scientists. “Many thousands of watering points are used by elephants including large reservoirs with perimeters of many tens of kilometres, rivers and streams which cannot be manned adequately,” a source said.

Another pointed out that the number of elephants counted will be proportional to the number of points as most enumerators will feel compelled to report that they saw some elephants. Many teams were deployed at points where large numbers of elephants were known to gather like Minneriya - Kaudulla, the spokesperson said, when the Sunday Times asked how 400 elephants could be counted when they converged on the tank-bed at the same time.

Queried why the teams have been tasked with noting the detailed description of the elephants’ tusks, the spokesperson said it was nothing new. The same document had been used in the 2008 survey in the Mahaweli region. All the survey data will be analyzed to formulate a conservation strategy, the spokesperson added.

Rs. 23 million from Wildlife Fund; 2000 bags from Florida centre

The Cabinet approved Rs. 23 million from the DWC’s Wildlife Fund for the ‘Survey of Elephants in Sri Lanka’ while a hotel chain forked out Rs. 1.8 million for the counting in the Yala area, the Sunday Times learns from the DWC.

An interesting “input”, confirmed by the DWC, was the provision of 2,000 bags for those involved in the counting by Bruce Read of the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, America.

A web search shows amidst all the propaganda material about “caring for Asian elephants” that the Ringling Bros. Center is largely an elephant breeding centre that provides baby elephants for circuses. Incidentally, the Ringling Bros. Center also boasts on its website that among the experts from around the world who visit it are Dr. Raman Sukumar and Dr. Charles Santiapillai, a long-time collaborator of Bruce Read.

Both Dr. Santiapillai linked to the Peradeniya University and Dr. Sukumar from India have been associated with the survey, DWC sources said.

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