Wildlife: In what could be useful input for solving the human-elephant conflict as well as elephant conservation, forestry officials are carrying out GPS (global positioning system) collaring of elephants in wildlife sanctuaries in the south.

The study will help understand the root cause of human-elephant conflict, in particular, by understanding their dietary patterns and their migratory routes.

Sonam Wangdi, chief forestry officer of Samtse forest division, said the study was the first of its kind in Bhutan.  The timing of the movement of elephant population within the country will be recorded, for use as seasonality of the elephant movement across the border between India and Bhutan.

He said a plan on what kind of mitigation techniques would best work to prevent the crop damage could be prepared if their behaviour of the animal is known. “Knowing the seasonality and movement patterns of the animals will help us know when and where the elephants will come into Bhutanese territory,” he said.

The project plans to collar about 10 elephants in total in the major habitats in the west from Samtse, Lhamoizingkha, Phibsoo wildlife sanctuary, Sarpang, Royal Manas national park, and Samdrupjongkhar and Jomotsangkha wildlife sanctuary in the east. 

The study will also determine the area that the animals cover in search of food, mating and birthing, which is called the home range.  This, Sonam Wangdi said, could be determined by studying the cluster of locations obtained by the study in a defined period of time.

A study on animal’s preference for foods can also give some idea of their crop raiding behaviour. “If the elephants stay in a forest very near to human settlement most of the time, and come out of forest during night into the villages, and this is repeated over many nights, we can say that the animal or its herd is a habitual crop raider,” said Sonam Wangdi. “And if the herd passes through the villages into another forest, eating crops along the way, it’s a opportunistic crop raider.”

The information will be vital for designing and developing elephant conservation plans in the country.  For instance, he said, if the road fell within the elephant home range, the roads could be designed in an elephant friendly way.

Sonam Wangdi said that, while India had done a lot of studies on elephants, including movement study in the neighbouring state of West Bengal, there have been incidences of collared elephants crossing into Bhutanese border. “Bhutan didn’t have a study focused on elephants and its conservation.”

No concrete study has been undertaken so far to determine the population of elephants in Bhutan.  Although surveys were undertaken in 2005, based on direct sighting and block count, the study failed to reach any concrete conclusion due to animal movement through dense forest in the south.

In 2010, another attempt was made to ascertain the elephant population using the dung transect method.  But the Royal Manas national park, a major elephant habitat, and its eastern habitat in Samdrupjongkhar and Jomotsangkha wildlife sanctuary, were left out by the survey, resulting in an unreliable estimate.

The survey estimated elephant population of 513 per 800sqkm in Bhutan in three areas of Samtse, Sarpang and Phibsoo wildlife sanctuary.

The United Nations Development Program and Danida support the fund for six elephant GPS collars.  The implementation of the project is supported by Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation.

By MB Subba