Photo by John Hayes

Varun Goswami Seminar Summary

"Facilitating the coexistence of people and wildlife in heterogeneous, human-dominated India"

Elephants are one of the most iconic animals on Earth. For many, the elephant is the epitome of the wilderness, and a symbol nature itself. But for others, elephants represent a direct threat to people's livelihoods and even to their lives. SNRE alumnus and current senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India program, Dr. Varun Goswami, studies the ecology and conservation of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in India, with the goal of guiding science-based conservation efforts to protect people and elephants.

Like most large mammals, elephants move over long distances. In a densely populated country like India, this can mean increased contact between humans and elephants, which sometimes can take the shape of conflict. These conflicts can take a toll on both human and elephant life and well-being. Traditional conservation efforts primarily focus on protecting large tracts of suitable land. Even though these protected areas form less than 5 percent of total land in India, they provide safe habitat for elephants. However, resources in protected areas are not sufficient to sustain a large-bodied and dispersing animal, and when elephants leave the protected areas they find themselves in a mosaic landscape of various land-use types.

Conservationists recognize the need for connectivity between protected areas and importance of conservation outside protected areas. This has led to an increasing importance being placed on the landscape-scale model of conservation. For elephants, the scale of this connectivity can be huge, and can quickly get complicated by geopolitical borders, cultural values, and human development. Since conservation resources are limited, Dr. Goswami identified 3 sets of questions that help focus the conservation efforts based on their benefits. First, where and why are the elephants moving? Second, what are the greatest predictors of human-elephant conflict? And finally, what are people's attitudes towards elephants, and is there desire to aid in conservation?

To answer these questions, Dr. Goswami studied elephant activity using remote cameras and sign surveys to identify hotspots of elephant activity both inside and outside of protected areas. He has identified important corridors that elephants use to move between forested areas. In a populated country like India, wild animals and humans are forced to share space and often corridors used by elephants become part of human activity centers. When this happens, elephants enter human dominated areas, and sometimes raid crops, and, when spooked, can kill unsuspecting people. Locals then kill the elephants out of retribution, or preemptively kill them next time they get near human development. Hence, knowing patterns and predictors of human-elephant conflict is essential. To identify these patterns, Dr. Goswami used cutting edge statistical models to predict the seasonality and drivers of crop-depredation. These results are important as conflict areas overlap with important elephant corridors. These results can be used to design mitigation methods that are both elephant and people friendly.

Identifying the primary cause of conflict is just a start, and is essential to provide direction for mitigation efforts. Novel methods are being developed around the world to promote co-existence by preventing crop depredation by elephants. These methods are superior to traditional efforts which focus on keeping the elephants inside the protected area boundaries using heavy fences and deep ditches. These techniques are expensive, and may not even be all that effective at conflict mitigation. Perhaps the more cost-effective plan is to promote conflict mitigation by promoting co-existence, tolerance and behavioral changes. To answer his final question about people's attitudes towards elephants, Dr. Goswami surveyed hundreds of tea- plantation workers and managers about their opinions on elephants. The results were overwhelmingly positive, with a vast majority of people reporting that not all elephants are bad, just some individuals. An even greater percentage of respondents declared that they wouldn't mind elephants in their back yard, so long as the people could be kept safe. These responses are encouraging for implementing conservation efforts at a local scale.

Human-wildlife conflict is a major threat to biodiversity throughout the world. Finding ways to mitigate these conflicts in the face of increasing development is a daunting problem for biologists to solve. But Dr. Goswami's findings set an encouraging example of implementing effective landscape-level conservation efforts by focusing resources where they will do the most good.