Identification of Elephants in Conflict with People Using Molecular Techniques, India
Human-elephant conflict is a complex problem as elephants react to the increasingly human dominated landscape. For conflict mitigation measures to be effective, they must be based on an understanding of the exact type of conflict on a local and regional scale. This study by the Center for Ecological Sciences uses molecular techniques to identify crop-raiding and other problem elephants and estimating the proportion of crop-raiders versus non-raiders, the proportion of habitual raiders versus occasional raiders, and the proportion of male versus female crop raiders in the conflict region in the Kodagu district of Karnataka (southern India). The results will provide valuable information for the development of conflict mitigation measures specifically customized to the region such as deterring a few habitual raiders that may be causing most of the damage versus building more effective barriers if conflict is largely opportunistic. These results will also have wide-ranging lessons for the study of elephant-human conflict, and subsequently, for informing policy decisions across the entire habitat of the Asian and African elephant.
UPDATED – August 2014
Short term goals: To identify the gender and individual identity of crop raiding elephants from dung samples collected from agricultural fields.
Long term goals: To identify habitual crop-raiders and determine the proportion of habitual raiders in the population, the proportion of habitual raiders versus occasional raiders and the proportion of male versus female crop raiders in the region. We plan use this information to devise measures for reducing crop raids that could be specifically targeted at deterring the identified habitual crop raiders in the region.
Anticipated completion date.
February 28, 2015. The peak crop-raiding season in our study site is from October to December. We plan to collect samples during the crop-raiding season this year, and include the molecular analyses of those samples in our final reports. By February 2015, we hope to complete the analyses of samples collected till the end of December, 2014.
A wide range of methods are used by governments, wildlife departments, NGOs and local communities to minimize crop damage by elephants, ranging from traditional methods such as noise making or chasing to construction of physical barriers, electric fencing and even occasional killing. Nevertheless, no single method has been entirely successful in preventing crop raiding. Moreover, animosity towards elephants among the local communities erodes goodwill towards the species and efforts for its conservation. Even in regions where elephant populations are on the rise due to successful conservation strategies, there is a need to minimize conflict to ensure sustainable co-existence with people into the future.
An assessment of the nature of conflict (whether by habitual or occasional raiders), accurate identification of habitual crop-raiders and information about their raiding frequency and ranging patterns can provide vital clues to devise effective mitigation measures and reduce conflict in the region.
Summary of goals and objectives
We aim to identify crop-raiding elephants to gain a better understanding of the acute levels of conflict in the Kodagu district of Karnataka (southern India), using molecular techniques. Through our study, we plan to estimate the proportion of crop raiders versus non-raiders, the proportion of habitual raiders versus occasional raiders and the proportion of male versus female crop raiders in the region, across a habitat fragmentation gradient.
Describe any changes in goals
In keeping with the recommendations of the grant review committee and the limited funds, we focused only on the crop raiding elephant samples. The analyzed samples include those collected between October to December, 2012 and 2013. No forest elephant samples have been analyzed.
Sample collection: Members of our lab had previously collected elephant fecal samples from agricultural crop raid sites during the peak crop raiding seasons (October to December) of 2012 and 2013. We have also identified areas of conflict that lie within coffee and other plantations in the region, and are in the process of collecting samples from such sites as well.
The dung samples have been used to extract DNA and PCR analysis for molecular sexing of the crop raiding animals. All extractions and PCRs were carried out in duplicates. Initially, we used the Qiagen stool DNA extraction kit and the manufacturer’s protocol to extract DNA from 44 extractions collected from crop raid sites. We obtained about a 60-70% amplification success, that is, only about 60-70% of the DNA extracts amplified and gave results in the subsequent molecular sexing PCRs. We explored another method for DNA extraction and found that the protocol described in Fernando et. al (2003) gave a better amplification success of almost 100% with fresh dung samples, but lower success with older dung samples. We plan to proceed with Fernando’s extraction protocol in the future.
We have also procured and standardized the conditions for PCR amplification of eight microsatellite loci, which have already been used for genotyping a neighboring population (Shubhankar 2014). We are in the process of standardizing the genotyping protocol for the analysis of the loci and individual identification of the crop raiding elephants.
Summary of progress
We have standardized the protocol for extraction of DNA from dung samples and carried out molecular sexing of 22 individuals, with 18 male and 4 females. Since many of the samples collected from crop raid sites are a few to several days old, the DNA may have been fragmented and degraded. More efficient extraction methods can increase the amplification success to a certain extent, but some samples may be degraded to the point that they no longer have any amplifiable DNA.
We are also in the process of finalizing the standardizations for genotyping protocols, and will carry out the genotyping analyses on the sexed samples..
Our results would provide valuable information to devise measures for reducing crop raids that could be specifically customized to a few habitual raiders that may be causing most of the damage versus raiding that is found to be largely opportunistic. These observations would also have wide-ranging lessons for the study of elephant-human conflict, and subsequently, for informing policy decisions across the entire habitat of the Asian and African elephant.
List major findings and accomplishments to date
- Standardization of DNA extraction protocol from dung samples to obtain good amplification success.
- Adaptation of the molecular sexing protocol from Ahlering et. al. (2011) for Asian elephants.
- Standardization of PCR conditions for microsatellite loci.