NEWS
29/08/2019 7:25 AM IST

Do India’s Elephants Really Need Birth Control?

A pilot project to reduce India’s elephant population may soon be rolled out, and many wildlife experts are concerned.

ePhotocorp via Getty Images
Indian elephant, Elephas maximus, with just born calf, Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, IndiaÊ

Are there too many elephants in India? That’s the question at the crux of a debate between wildlife experts on whether the government should use contraceptive measures to manage the population of four species including elephants.

If you go by the country’s first ever synchronised Elephant Census conducted in 2017, there are 27,312 elephants across 23 states.

But experts have argued that this number does not give a complete picture, mainly because of issues with the different methods used to estimate the population of elephants. The government itself said in the 2017 census report that the results should be interpreted with caution.

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It’s not just elephants—in India, accurate nation-wide population data on most animal species, including tigers, is hard to arrive at because of problems with the methodology used to track their numbers.

This is a major reason why the environment ministry’s proposal to use immunocontraceptives has met with resistance from many experts.

Apart from Asian elephants, these contraceptives—vaccines that, when injected into the female of the species, will prevent eggs from being fertilised—will also be used on rhesus macaques, wild boar and nilgai.

The 10-year project to develop an immunocontraceptive was approved in 2017, with a budget of Rs10 crore. According to Vinod Mathur, the director of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the nodal agency for the project, it will “soon be implemented on a pilot basis in a phased manner”.

While there has been an increase in human-elephant conflict over the years, is it right to argue that this is because the population of elephants has become burdensome? 

When asked how much we know about elephant density and distribution across the country, Dr. Devcharan Jathanna, associate director of Conservation Science at NGO Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS), said “very little”. 

There is long-term elephant population monitoring data from individual protected areas such as Nagarahole, Bandipur, Bhadra and Wayanad and some estimates from Kaziranga, Jathanna explained.

“But we don’t actually know how many elephants there are across elephant distributional ranges, either at the state or national level,” he said.

In India, accurate nation-wide population data on most animal species, including tigers, is hard to arrive at because of problems with the methodology used to track their numbers.

This is because dense vegetation in India’s forests only allows minimal detection of wildlife, making it difficult to accurately assess their population through direct observational methods. That’s why India uses estimation techniques that depend on sampling. 

So what, then, is the rationale for injecting immunocontraceptives—a technology as yet untested in India—into Asian elephants, a species that is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered animals?   

(Not) counting elephants

India’s elephant census (SEC) relies on methods such as block counts, waterhole counts and dung-based estimations. But there are certain issues with each of these.

In the block count method, the area to be studied is divided into ‘sample blocks’ that are representative of larger areas within the area of interest. Then teams of 2-3 people search each sample block and record the number of all the animals that are present. Once the counts are in for all such sample blocks, this is extrapolated for the entire area of interest. 

This method assumes that the sample area is representative of the entire area of interest, that there was no double-counting and all animals present within the blocks were actually detected and counted. 

But Jathanna says that in reality, the manner in which sample blocks are drawn is largely based on convenience. For example, pre-existing administrative units such as forest beats are used to define sample blocks, which means that the extrapolation to the larger area is “never justified”. 

Also, it is almost impossible to ensure that each individual animal is detected and that there are no cases of double-counting. 

Then there’s the waterhole count method, where all the animals that visit waterholes are numbered. This, Jathanna explained, is “completely useless” to estimate elephant numbers in an area because its results depend on calculating the precise waterhole visitation rate and in reality, such rates are not known. 

And while there are arguments that waterhole counts can be used to determine the age and sex structure of elephant populations, helping to determine the future trajectory of the population, this doesn’t hold up as it “requires the assumption that visitation rates are the same across different age groups and sexes,” he said.

India’s elephant census (SEC) relies on methods such as block counts, waterhole counts and dung-based estimations. But there are certain issues with each of these.

The other method is the indirect dung-based estimation that, while being relatively more scientific, has its own limitations.

“In this method, we count piles of dung that are deposited but have not yet decayed,” said M D Madhusudan, an independent researcher. 

By using the density of elephant dung, as well as a sense of how quickly dung is being deposited and its rate of decay, it is possible to estimate the density of elephants. 

“But it is really hard to estimate dung deposition and decay rates at each and every location, where it may vary,” Madhusudan said, adding that direct observational methods such as line transects, that are already being used widely in estimating populations of tiger prey, may provide a more precise and reliable estimate of elephant numbers.

Raman Sukumar, an ecologist and professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, said the current methods have “statistical shortcomings”, but that they were being done on a very large scale with very limited resources.

Direct observational methods, he said, are difficult to conduct thoroughly in places like the hilly regions of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya and parts of Odisha, where elephant densities are very low and the forests are dense. 

“Creating completely new baselines will involve several crores of rupees and the involvement of multiple research institutions,” he said.

Are immunocontraceptives justified?

If there isn’t enough investment in conducting thorough estimates of elephant populations, what is the rationale in trying to reduce their numbers through immunovaccines?

Dr. Ullas Karanth, Director, Centre for Wildlife Studies, who has monitored one of the largest elephant populations in the Nagarahole-Bandipur area annually for two decades using distance sampling methods that rely on direct observations, said that he and his colleagues “have not seen evidence for any sharp increase” in the population of elephants.

The Nagarahole-Bandipur region is considered one of the most secure habitats for elephants in India. 

There are risks involved in trying to control the population of elephants—a species which reproduce slowly—without enough information.   

“They produce one offspring almost always, and take three to four years to wean this calf and produce a second offspring. Thus it takes a substantial amount of time for an elephant population to grow,” said Varun R. Goswami, Associate Director of WCS.

He also cautioned that using vaccines without being aware of their side-effects could be dangerous, potentially leading to behavioural and physiological side-effects in elephants, including increased stress levels. This, in turn, might actually increase the chances of human-elephant conflicts, putting the lives of both elephants and people at risk.

Why are human-elephant conflicts increasing?

There’s no doubt that over the years, the number of altercations between humans and elephants and the resulting damage have increased. But the biggest reason for this, said Karanth, is the fact that elephant habitats have been fragmented, thereby increasing the interaction between wild elephants and human-dominated agricultural landscapes. 

Goswami has also conducted studies that suggest that habitat loss, fragmentation and reduced connectivity are the major drivers of human-elephant conflict. These studies have been documented in a paper titled ‘Triage of Conservation Needs: The Juxtaposition of Conflict Mitigation and Connectivity Considerations in Heterogenous, Human-Dominated landscapes’.

Sukumar, however, disagrees with this argument.“There have been no great fragmentations in the southern parts of India in the last 30-40 years,” he said.

This line of reasoning, however, does not hold up because the Western Ghats that span across six states have routinely borne the brunt of new and expanding infrastructural projects such as highways and railway lines and other developmental projects such as mining and the construction of dams. There are also vast expanses of tea and coffee plantations over land which was previously under forest cover. 

Using vaccines without being aware of their side-effects could be dangerous, potentially leading to behavioural and physiological side-effects in elephants, including increased stress levels."Varun R. Goswami, Associate Director of WCS

Human-elephant conflict is an important issue, but resorting to measures such as immunocontraception based on no evidence may do little to reduce such conflict, said Jathanna. 

“Such ill-advised interventions may needlessly jeopardise populations of endangered species with no benefit to human communities,” he added.

WII’s Mathur said that the current project only aims to deal with the population of animals in certain pockets of the country, such as northwest Bengal and Hassan and Coorg districts of Karnataka, where “there is real conflict and where the animal population in that specific area is locally overabundant”. 

“There is substantive evidence that these local populations are causing unprecedented levels of human deaths and damage to property in these specific areas,” he said.

To back up his claim about heavy human casualties, Mathur cited a paper titled ‘Assessment and prediction of spatial patterns of human-elephant conflicts in changing land cover scenarios of a human-dominated landscape in North Bengal’, published in PLOS ONE in February 2019.

While the paper notes “both the elephant and human population have increased in the past few decades,” it draws a larger argument, saying that “there has been a disparity between nature, economic development and fragmentation of wildlife habitats leading to intense conflicts between humans and Asian elephants in recent times.” 

It also notes that large tracts of forests have been converted to commercial tea plantations, army camps and human settlements. As a mitigation measure, the paper suggests the setting up of early warning systems and the restoration of wildlife corridors.

“There is no proposal or plan to target (elephants) or any other species at any larger scale—state or national—because first, these species are not in conflict everywhere... and second, they are still species of concern, especially the endangered elephant, and their conservation is of the highest priorityVinod Mathur, director of the Wildlife Institute of India

Mathur acknowledged that natural areas are indeed diminishing, but said “steps need to be taken simultaneously to address this.” 

“There is no proposal or plan to target these or any other species at any larger scale—state or national—because first, these species are not in conflict everywhere and therefore need not be actively managed everywhere, and second, they are still species of concern, especially the endangered elephant, and their conservation is of the highest priority,” he said.

In response to Mathur’s point that conflicts in Hassan have increased over the last few years because of “locally overabundant” populations, Madhusudan said that the problem there is less a consequence of elephant reproduction and more of elephant immigration.

While in some places, he further explained, conflict is indeed the outcome of habitat loss or degradation, pushing elephants out of their natural habitats, in some others, even without any apparent stress arising from habitat loss or such other factors, “elephant ranges have significantly expanded as a consequence of their exploratory behaviour.”

The researcher added that immunocontraceptives struck him as a bizarre way to solve immediate human-elephant conflicts.

“If you have delivered an immunocontraceptive to a cow elephant, granted that she may not reproduce, but how will that lower the risk that her continued presence in the landscape may pose to human life, livelihood or property?” he asked.

Madhusudan added that elephants have long lives and a non-reproductive female may live for another forty years in that same landscape. 

“If she cannot reproduce, how does that reduce the existing risks that people there already face?” he asked.

ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images
Monkeys drink water from buckets on a hot summer day at Guindy Children's Park in Chennai on June 10, 2019. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

How would immunocontraceptives work on the ground?

These vaccines have been used on wild horses and certain species of deer in the United States and on elephants in South Africa. But they have not been tested in India yet.

Satish Gupta, Emeritus Scientist and former deputy director at NII, who was a consultant for writing the project proposal, said that one of the major issues with the project concerns the delivery of the vaccine.

“This is not a single injection that will provide contraceptive efficiencies,” he pointed out.

When such a project was undertaken in the US and South Africa, the animals were given two injections initially—one month apart—and this was followed by annual boosters. So effective implementation of the programme requires a well-planned approach with scheduled timelines.

Additionally, in the US and South Africa, all such injections were delivered using dart guns, where capturing the animal was not required. Since these were relatively larger animals, the dart gun approach worked effectively. 

But with smaller animals, there is the risk of hitting other organs when the dart gun method is used. With the current plan, this may be applicable to rhesus macaques and wild boars which will have to be captured, vaccinated and then released back into the wild. 

The process would be particularly tricky for rhesus macaques because they are “restless animals”, Gupta added. 

While it’s not impossible to address these concerns through effective coordination between different experts and organisations, even that may be difficult in India.

Since the government awarded the project to WII, says Gupta, the institute has not contacted him. 

“This is a problem in the field of science in India… we do not know how to collaborate with each other,” he said, adding that NII has been working on reproductive immunology for many years and WII lacks such experience.

There may also be a legal hurdle to cross.

Currently, there is a Supreme Court injunction against the use of immunocontraceptives on elephants. In response to a submission made by Tapesh Kumar Singh, the counsel appearing for Jharkhand, that West Bengal had decided to introduce contraceptives to elephants to reduce the risk of railway accidents, the court passed an order calling the measure “condemnable”.

It also ordered West Bengal authorities not to administer any kind of contraceptives or introduce any method of sterilisation that hinders the natural procreative processes of elephants or any other wildlife.

According to reports, the environment ministry has said that it is trying to vacate the order. 

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