Making room for elephants

Landscape level conservation planning for elephants in Karnataka

Following up on the preliminary findings of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force, this collaborative effort strives, firstly, to describe elephant distribution in the state reliably, and then, based on objective ecological and social criteria, to delineate these habitats in Karnataka into appropriate management zones.

Where are the elephants distributed in Karnataka?

The first step in designing conservation planning for elephants is to know their spatial distribution. Even such basic data are not available in most of the elephant ranges. In order to generate fine-scaled (i.e., beat level) distribution map for elephants in Karnataka, we pulled together on various kinds of data, including the locations of every dung transect that was walked by the Forest Department during the “census” exercises of 2010 and 2012 (through Karnataka Forest Department and Asian Nature Conservation Foundation), locations of elephant sightings or signs obtained during NCF’s surveys in the Western Ghats and nearby areas, village level locations of conflict from recent published literature as well as location data collected by different researchers working in Karnataka. All these data were used to generate state-level distribution map of elephants in Karnataka. 

Making sense of landscape connectivity

One of the ecological variables that we wish to estimate and incorporate in the conservation planning for elephants in Karnataka is the connectivity value of a given forest beat in the landscape context for the elephants. A higher connectivity value could help prioritise a given forest beat higher for conservation if it also meet other ecological and social criteria. Our approach for understanding connectivity is not only based on in characterising structural connectivity of the elephant habitats but also in understanding the functional connectivity of the landscape. We apply the graph-theoretic approach to characterise habitat connectivity and identify the most important forest beats and links for conservation prioritisation at relatively large scales. 


Conservation planning for elephants in Karnataka

India currently attempts both a land-based and a species-focused approach to elephant conservation. While both these conservation approaches may work well for wildlife species that are restricted to protected areas, the land-based and species-focused approaches come into conflict especially for a large and potentially-dangerous animal like the elephant that tends to occur widely outside the boundaries of protected areas. While we can, and indeed must, prioritise the conservation of elephant within designated conservation landscapes can we accord the species the same privilege in the unfortunate situations where they occur far from conservation areas, often in the heart of human dwelling and production areas? How do we address the management of this species in the wild in such a situation? We are exploring  an approach of zoning the elephant’s range such that we can more reasonably assign management objectives that better reconcile its conservation with human priorities. Finally, we will explore broad management approaches for these zones, and identify indicators to measure overall status and effectiveness of such a management approach.


Three management zones suggested by Karnataka Elephant Task Force for elephants of Karnataka





  • Journal Article
    Distribution, relative abundance, and conservation status of Asian elephants in Karnataka, southern India
    M D Madhusudan, Narayan Sharma, R Raghunath, N Baskaran, C M Bipin, Sanjay Gubbi, A J T Johnsingh, Jayanta Kulkarni, H N Kumara, Prachi Mehta, Rajeev Pillay, R Sukumar
    Biological Conservation 187:34-40

    PDF, 1.57 MB

    Karnataka state in southern India supports a globally significant—and the country’s largest—population of the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. A reliable map of Asian elephant distribution and measures of spatial variation in their abundance, both vital needs for conservation and management action, are unavailable not only in Karnataka, but across its global range. Here, we use various data gathered between 2000 and 2015 to map the distribution of elephants in Karnataka at the scale of the smallest forest management unit, the ‘beat’, while also presenting data on elephant dung density for a subset of ‘elephant beats.’ Elephants occurred in 972 out of 2855 forest beats of Karnataka. Sixty percent of these 972 beats—and 55% of the forest habitat—lay outside notified protected areas (PAs), and included lands designated for agricultural production and human dwelling. While median elephant dung density inside protected areas was nearly thrice as much as outside, elephants routinely occurred in or used habitats outside PAs where human density, land fraction under cultivation, and the interface between human-dominated areas and forests were greater. Based on our data, it is clear that India’s framework for elephant conservation— which legally protects the species wherever it occurs, but protects only some of its habitats—while being appropriate in furthering their conservation within PAs, seriously falters in situations where elephants reside in and/or seasonally use areas outside PAs. Attempts to further elephant conservation in production and dwelling areas have extracted high costs in human, elephant, material and monetary terms in Karnataka. In such settings, conservation planning exercises are necessary to determine where the needs of elephants—or humans—must take priority over the other, and to achieve that in a manner that is based not only on reliable scientific data but also on a process of public reasoning.

  • Popular Article
    Current ecological concerns in the power sector: options to avoid or minimise impacts
    Pages 89-100 in M N Goswami and P Chaudhry (editors) An Epochal Shift in the Idea of India-Meeting aspirations? IPPAI Knowledge Report, Independent Power Producers Association of India, New Delhi.

    PDF, 1.36 MB

  • Popular Article
    Death of two Osamas
    Deccan Herald Spectrum, 24 May 2011, page 4.

    PDF, 351 KB

    Maligning the elephant: Following the death of two elephants that went by the name Osama in the last five years, T R Shankar Raman wonders what the future holds for the human – elephant relationship. Will it remain a perception of elephants as objects of conflict seen through the coin of economics and the lens of science, when it could lead to co-existence if passed through the prism of humanity?

    Available here:

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