Wildlife & Biodiversity

Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Karnataka record 13,662 jumbos; male-female ratios and age gradation healthy, say experts

Climate change, human-elephant conflict and habitat fragmentation affecting movement of the animals

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Friday 11 August 2023
In 2017, the three states had recorded 17,836 elephants. File photo: CSE__

The number of elephants in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have seen a slight increase, but have almost halved for Kerala, according to the recently released Elephant Population Estimates jointly conducted by the southern India states. However, experts said the populations are stable and healthy, attributing the dip to migration. 

The three states recently released the estimates after conducting a joint survey in May earlier this year. Karnataka’s elephants increased from 6,049 in 2017 to 6,395 in 2023, the reports showed.

In Tamil Nadu, there was a rise to 2,961 in 2023 from 2,761 in 2017. Meanwhile, in Kerala, the population has dropped from 9,026 to 4,306 in the same period.

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The Kerala forest department used two methods to calculate the numbers — block count and dung count. It recorded 1,920 estimated elephants according to the block count and 2,386 with the dung count method.

The overall elephant population for the three states was registered to be 13,662 in 2023, compared to 17,836 in 2017.

The drought in 2016 could have influenced the high elephant numbers in Kerala in 2017, said ecology professor Raman Sukumar from Indian Institute of Science (IISc), an expert on the Asian elephant. “The population estimates are not worrisome and somewhat similar to 2017,” he said. 

During the drought year, the elephants might have migrated to Kerala in search of water and later must’ve have returned to their respective lands, he added. 

As per the report, the state has also witnessed deaths of 678 elephants between 2015 and 2022 and a majority of the deaths were reported among calves and juveniles.

Figures show that 275 among them were less than 10 years old, while 155 others were aged between 10 and 20 years. The deaths among the younger population was attributed to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, which is common in the wild. 

Earlier estimates may have been overestimated and methods followed for estimations this year are much more precise, forest officials told the daily The Hindu. 

The current population patterns are healthy and the male-female ratio has improved over the years, Sukumar told Down To Earth (DTE). The ratio was skewed in the 1980-90s due to poaching. “The gradation between adult male, female, calves, juveniles and makhnas (tuskless males) is balanced,” he added.

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Shortage of food due to an increase in invasive species such as Lantana camara and an increase in human-elephant conflict (HEC) are concerning as they are venturing out for food.

“The carrying capacity of the elephants has also reached a high level as a high density of elephants is found in particular areas. It is recommended to bring focus back on sensible landscape scale planning,” he said.

Several measures for increasing fodder and drinking water availability and augmenting resources have been taken, Srinivas Reddy, principal chief conservator of forest wildlife and chief wildlife warden, Tamil Nadu told DTE

The department has begun removing invasive species, which is a continuous process. “A full-fledged programme has been started for it,” he said.  

Population composition of all age groups is observed to be good across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Reddy added.

Claiming that the population estimates are satisfying, free movement of elephants is assisted and the landscape is sufficient to hold the basic number of elephants, he further said. “They are well within the statistic limits,” he said.

To address HEC, artificial intelligence and rapid response teams are also being roped in, Reddy said.

“The conflicts are not entirely due to shortage of fodder. Elephants are also moving to farms such as maize during the monsoon season, when fodder in the forest is available. It is likely because they choose palatable crops,” he added.

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The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, 2010. It is also classified under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972).

In Kerala, the adult sex ratio of male to female in 2023 is one is to 2.56 compared to one is to 1.62 in 2017, a higher skew towards females. In Tamil Nadu, adult male to female ratio was recorded as 1:1.78.

Climate change, human elephant conflict and habitat fragmentation is affecting the movement of these elephants in Kerala, the estimates report said.

“Kerala has witnessed the impacts of climate change. This has led to the degradation of forests and enhanced aridity in forest areas and has also affected wild animals and their behavioural patterns. This needs more attention and site- specific actions,” the report noted.

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