NEW DELHI: There is a need to "rethink" conservation strategies for threatened large mammal species like elephants, wildlife scientists have said.
In an article published in the international journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, Varun R Goswami and Divya Vasudev have said elephant connectivity cannot be ignored while mitigating conflict and that landscape connectivity is critical for their conservation.
"Asian elephant conservation provides the perfect example. Elephant survival in heterogeneous landscapes rests on their ability to move among habitats in search of food and space. But this movement often brings elephants into contact and potential conflict with people, especially in densely populated countries like India," said Goswami, who heads the elephant program for Wildlife Conservation Society India.
The conservation biologists stressed that landscape connectivity is critical for elephant conservation and sites important for elephant connectivity often face human–elephant conflict.
They said barrier-centric conflict mitigation that comes with substantial monetary costs can also adversely affect elephant conservation while they stressed that minimising conflict without impinging on elephant connectivity is the "need of the hour".
Noting that a typical response to conflict is to prevent elephants from exiting forests through fences and trenches, Vasudev said this strategy, however, has a direct negative impact on connectivity and as a result on elephant persistence.
"Animals do not always move through corridors that people demarcate, rather they use routes they view as least threatening," said Vasudev.
"Corridors are of course important but we still have a way to go in knowing where animals move, what stops dispersal, and which areas are most critical for maintaining connectivity," she added.
The debate becomes pertinent in light of the railway fences coming up around some of India's most important forests. The cost of these fences reportedly runs to more than Rs 1 crore per kilometre.
"These fences come at huge monetary and manpower costs, and before putting them up, we need to think hard about where we place them. It is critical that we minimise human–elephant conflict, while simultaneously thinking about elephant movement between habitats," said Goswami.
The article is titled 'Triage of conservation needs: The juxtaposition of conflict mitigation and connectivity considerations in heterogeneous, human-dominated landscapes'.
Vasudev also said endangered species, including elephants, tigers and gibbons (a species of ape), are present in fragmented landscapes and conserving them in these landscapes means that there is a need to have science-based policy, long-term vision, and to incorporate diverse challenges and opportunities.