Survey to determine elephant population

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Wildlife: Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), the wild giants people revere and forebode as well have long been misery for the farmers south of the country. Yet we do not know how many of them are there in the wild.

Pinning down on number is essential, not only for the formulation of conservation policies, but also to help farmers protect their crops from the marauding quadrupeds.

Good news is the Department of Parks and Services (DoFPS) launched first nationwide elephant survey on March 3 at Singye in Sarpang  to mark World Wildlife Day.  While International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that there are about 200-500 elephants in Bhutan, the country lacks its precise population figure. Thus,  the survey will help determine the population of Asian elephant in Bhutan.

Park manager of the Royal Manas National Park (RMNP),  Tenzin Wangchuk  said as of there is no authentic figure on elephant population in Bhutan.

“The main objective of the survey is to determine elephant population in Bhutan,” Tenzin Wangchuk said.

Forestry officials will survey the southern belt from Samtse in the southwest to Jomotsangkha in the southeast, through the protected areas such as RMNP, Phibsoo and Jomotsangkha Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Species conservation and monitoring section senior forestry officer, Sonam Wangdi said forestry official would have begun the study from March 8. “The study is the first systematic survey conducted to determine the population of elephant,” Sonam Wangdi said.

At RMNP, officials are already prepared to venture to the fields. “We have completed grouping, field protocol and logistics arrangements. Some teams are already on their way to the survey areas,” Tenzin Wangchuk said.

The nationwide survey will use dung method, which is considered suitable and efficient technique globally for elephant survey. The technique draws Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from dung to determine the population.

“The animal population can be determined through collection of DNA from as many dung, which  tentatively is planned to be sent to Guwahati in India,” Sonam Wangdi said.

Tenzin Wangchuk said that the survey will also enable DoFPS to understand which region of the country has the highest concentration of elephants.

“By understanding the migration pattern, we can mitigate human conflict with elephants,” Tenzin Wangchuk said.

The outcome of the study will also help manage human-wildlife conflict holistically in the long-run without having to fence the animal off Sonam Wangdi said.

The senior forestry official said the survey is also to understand threats to the elephant from developmental activities like road constructions and agricultural expansion.

Earlier, officials found construction of road between Bangtar and Samrang through elephant route unfriendly for the giants. Constructions have created steep slopes, making it difficult for the herd to cross.

“The survey will help reduce such habitat damages through sensitization and awareness programmes to people” Sonam Wangdi said.

DoFPS has also recently GPS collard its fifth elephant from RMNP. This will help department officials to understand the animal’s home range, migration pattern and habitat utilization. So far, two male and three female elephants from Samrang, Sarpang, Phibsoo and RMNP have been radio collared after DoFPS started first collaring in March 2014.

The radio-collaring programme will also help officials understand whether the elephant is completely dependent on agricultural crops.

Sonam Wangdi said elephants in Bhutan suffer no threats from poaching. But habitat loss due to developmental activities and electrocution are two serious threats to elephants in Bhutan.

“So, electric fence is given to the communities sharing habitat with elephant in order that no live current is used to fence their farms, which could risk the lives of elephants,” Sonam Wangdi said.

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