Pioneering research led by a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India Program scientist has established a reliable approach to predict when and where human–wildlife conflicts are likely to occur. Analyzing conflict incidences over time, the researchers revealed mechanisms that influence patterns in crop raids by elephants in their study area.
The research has important implications in India, where over 400 people and 100 elephants are reportedly killed in conflicts annually.
The novel framework established by this research will help conservation scientists better understand reasons for occurrence of these conflicts. It can be readily used to generate ‘predictive maps’ of human–wildlife conflicts and pre-emptively mitigate them, to foster coexistence of people and wildlife. Additionally, the framework can be used to test if implemented mitigation measures have proven successful in reducing conflicts.
“Mitigating human–wildlife conflict is of crucial concern for both wildlife conservation and human well-being; and a reliable understanding of why such conflicts occur holds the key for effective mitigation,” said the lead researcher Dr. Varun Goswami, who heads the Elephant Program of WCS in India, emphasizing the utility of their approach for conservation of a suite of conflict-prone species worldwide.
The study is a result of intensive seven-year-long monitoring of human–elephant conflicts in Garo Hills in northeast India, and a novel application of cutting-edge methodology to study the reported conflicts.
Dr. Goswami and his collaborators – Mr. Kamal Medhi of Samrakshan Trust, Dr. James D. Nichols of US Geological Survey and Dr. Madan K. Oli of University of Florida, studied over 600 instances of crop depredation by elephants across 49 conflict-prone villages. The landscape included a mosaic of community-managed forests and four Protected Areas – Baghmara Reserve Forest, Balphakram National Park, Siju Wildlife Sanctuary and Rewak Reserve Forest – interspersed with agricultural lands.
“The community in this region is predominantly agrarian. Jhum cultivation is in popular practice on hill slopes during the onset of the rainy season, and paddy is cultivated in flooded valleys after the rains,” said Mr. Medhi, whose team in Samrakshan Trust had monitored and collected the conflict data from the 49 villages.
The researchers used an approach known as occupancy modelling to tease apart the drivers of conflicts, from factors that influence how they are observed. “We often assume that we are able to accurately record all conflicts that occur. But factors such as difficult terrain and inaccessibility may lead to lower detection or under-reporting of conflicts from certain locations, falsely indicating lower levels of conflict in these areas,” said Dr. Goswami, referring to the incorporation of ‘imperfect detection’ of conflict into their study.
This is the first study on human-wildlife conflict that accounts for imperfect detection, negating potential bias in our understanding of conflict patterns, he stressed.
Using occupancy modelling the researchers not only quantified patterns of crop raiding across the landscape, but also isolated reasons for changes in these patterns from one season to the next. “We were able to understand why elephants continue to raid certain places and what causes them to raid new locations” added Dr. Goswami. “In this landscape, it was a combination of factors – local cultivation practices, long-term rainfall patterns, density of villages, distance to forests, and terrain – that shaped elephant crop raiding patterns.”
Based on their findings, the researchers created ‘predictive maps’ of elephant crop depredation across the larger landscape for different crop seasons, and made recommendations for effective conflict mitigation.
An outcome of Dr. Goswami’s PhD research, the paper titled ‘Mechanistic understanding of human–wildlife conflict through a novel application of dynamic occupancy models’ was published in the highly respected international journal, Conservation Biology, last week.