BENGALURU: Wildlife researchers can now have extensive insights on stress levels in wild Asian elephants, thanks to a PhD scholar’s work over five years.
Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel (30), a PhD student at IISc, collected about 800 samples of elephant dung from 600 elephants over five years from the Western Ghats forests for her thesis. The study was the first of its kind with wild Asian elephants, and even the method used — collecting dung samples — hadn’t been used on this scale in the country. Earlier studies had used urine and blood samples.
Sanjeeta, who has worked with wildlife for 10 years, began her field work in 2013, and by her own admision, it turned out to be much harder than she expected. “Initially, I thought I could collect up to 10 samples a day. My professor smiled on hearing this, but didn’t say anything. In the forest, I realised it was a problem to even spot elephants, and often, after they defecated, they wouldn’t move from their positions for long. I was able to collect only five samples in a day.”
The main finding of the research is that an elephant’s body condition has an inverse correlation with the amount of stress it is going through. Secondly, females undergo cycles of stressful periods during the dry season,unlike males.The study was published in an Oxford journal on conservation physiology.
For her thesis, Sanjeeta scoured the forests for elephants with Krishna, a tribal local person. They would hide behind vegetation when she spotted an elephant and then wait for them to defecate and move, after which she would collect the samples in an ice box. She analysed the hormonal metabolites in the samples with the guidance of Professor P B Seshagiri from IISc.
Her time in the forest was also fraught with dangers, not just from elephants, but also from carnivores. Sanjeeta laughs as she says she has been charged at by elephants several times and has sighted tigers and leopards at least 20 times.
Recalling one such incident, she said, “One day I forgot my spectacles and so my eyesight wasn’t so good. We spotted an elephant, and as I moved towards it, a branch near me started to shake. I initially thought it was the ‘tribal anna,’ until I saw him and the driver gesticulating wildly at me, since we don’t talk in the forests as a rule. I then saw that it was a leopard which was shaking the branch, and I quietly retreated.”
Sanjeeta is still collecting samples, this time from the forests of Kodagu and Hassan. She intends to write another paper on the stress levels in elephants that face conflicts with humans. For this, several inhabitants of villages around these forests call her whenever elephants attack their farms, which is mostly at night.
Raman Sukumar, professor of Ecology at IISc, had worked with elephants for 38 years. He says Sanjeeta’s research is important on multiple fronts, especially as the technique of collecting dung samples to study a species has been firmly established by the research.