Counting elephants-The other side of the coin
By Srilal Miththapala
There is considerable publicity about the proposed elephant census being planned by the Department of Wild Life Conservation (DWLC) in mid-August and great expectations too. When the news was released a few months ago, I wrote an article in the ‘Sunday Times’ on March 20, 2011 entitled ‘Counting elephants -a Jumbo Task’ where I enumerated the different techniques used for both the direct sighting method and indirect sighting method of counting, and their pros and cons.
Now that more information has been revealed by the DWLC, it is evident that the proposed census will be an island-wide one, to be carried out during consecutive days in mid-August and that it will be a “water hole count” ( a direct sighting technique). It will involve about 3,000 persons including volunteers and service personnel and is estimated to cost about Rs 20 m.
Counting elephants is not easy
According to a recent press release by the DWLC “15 national parks will be closed for day visitors during these three days to facilitate the census.
A team of experts from the Indian Wildlife Institute will arrive in the country during the first week of August to help and consult in carrying out the census. The WCD officials, military personnel, volunteers from NGOs and villagers will also participate in the elephant count.
The census will be based on water holes, reservoirs and tanks. Not only elephant counts but also elephant pathways, health and injuries of elephants will also be observed during the census.”
The press release adds that this will be a ‘good opportunity to identify the juvenile, sub-adult, adult and tusker elephant population in the island separately’. The data gathered through this census will be effectively used to develop an elephant conservation management plan to suit Sri Lanka.
Now a census “is the procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population….and the data is commonly used for research, and planning, as well as a baseline setting.” (Shepard,Jon; Robert W. Greene-2003). When an island-wide census is done on the human population there is a wide range of other information (such as sex, occupation, age, type of dwelling etc) that is also collected. On the other hand “counting elephants to estimate the current population” (what is planned in Sri Lanka) is then not a ‘census’ but really a ‘population estimation’.
Hence there-in lies the first anomaly that has to be cleared, that what is being planned, is really not a census, but a basic population estimation of the wild elephants in Sri Lanka.
Water hole count
The water hole count is, as the name implies, a direct method of counting which is based on the fact that wild elephants normally come to drink from sources of water in the evening, especially during the drought season. It is by far one of the most complex methods of direct counting, because it involves actually counting the number of all elephants at all selected water holes during the specific period of the census (in this case two/three consecutive days).
Such a procedure must necessarily be carried out over several days, in quick succession. The counting should take place sequentially, so that the possibility of elephants moving from one water hole to another during the process of the counting is minimized to avoid double counting errors.
Hence it is obvious that a very large number of properly trained personnel will be required to undertake this exercise. Considerable amount of planning is required, as well as a huge logistics operation is needed to be in place, such as vehicles, provision of food and water, overnight accommodation facilities for the ‘enumerators’ in the wild. etc.
The effectiveness of water hole counts
The success of a water hole count depends on covering as many water holes as possible in the fastest possible time so as to prevent double counting due to elephants ranging from one water hole to the other. It does not take too much scientific knowledge to conclude that this method requires very large resources, particularly a large number of properly trained personnel to simultaneously count elephants at different water holes, all at the same time (in this case the whole of the island). The fact that one is dealing with a large and intelligent animal, further complicates the matter.
One of the rare Elephants in the Sinharaja Forest- How many are there?
Although one would think that given the large size of an elephant, and the relatively small size of the land mass of Sri Lanka, it would be easy to spot and count the animals, in actual fact , this is not so. Elephants can be very stealthy, and are generally wary of humans.
They also tend to range over long distances and can move about 30 km overnight. Hence the errors that could arise in being able to sight and count all, if not a sizable sample set of the elephants, in and around a particular water hole, are large. Movements of elephants over wide ranges will bring double counting errors into the equation.
One look at a map will indicate the vast number of water holes and tanks all over the island. True one can eliminate many on the basis that they are not in ‘elephant habitat’, but then again most of the tanks are situated in the dry zone where there is a greater abundance of elephants. So what a herculean task it would be, to ‘man’ at least a good proportion of these tanks in two days!
According to the press release all the parks are going to be closed during the period of this activity, and this is certainly a good decision. But one must keep in mind that research has clearly revealed that more than 70% of Sri Lanka’s wild elephant population resides outside the boundaries of the national parks. ( Prithiviraj Fernando, Devaka Weerakoon et al). So concentrating on the wild life parks, as explained by the DWLC will not give an accurate picture of the wild elephant population of Sri Lanka by any means.
We do not have to look very far to learn from what has been done. India has undertaken several such direct counting methods over the years, which have been failures and not yielded any useful results. Some Indian experts have cautioned of such ‘pointless and questionable methods’ which have poor practical application in the field. Learning from lessons in the past, Indian authorities now use two techniques simultaneously to ensure greater accuracy of the census. (The May 2011 census in the Bhadra forest reserve, and in Karnataka State which includes the Bandipur and Nagarhole forest ranges, both of which used direct counting supported by transects and dung counts)
Even if such a count or population estimation is to be done ( more on that later on) then a proper, time- tested sampling method, such as dung counts or transects, (explained in my earlier article ) based on good mathematical models should be done. It is not to say that these methods will be absolutely correct. There will always be errors, but the goal should be to minimize them, and to use a good standardized method that can be replicated.
The purpose of the ‘census’ or count
Even if the water hole count is carried out accurately (which will be a very remote possibility for the reasons given ) what purpose will it serve? At the end of the day the DWLC will come out with a number of 4,000, 5,000 or , 6,000 elephants as the case may be, with some idea of the numbers in certain specific areas.
How will this aid planning to mitigate the human elephant conflict (HEC), the greatest issue facing the DWLC and Sri Lanka elephants today? Will it shed light on a more accurate male/female ratio, from what is currently available which said to be around 51%? Will it be able to identify the individuals and herds that regularly raid villages? Would it yield a reasonably accurate number of tuskers in the wild? (The currently available information of 7% of the male population is based on a study done back in 1994) . Would it not have been better to start with selected sites of importance (key conservation areas, high HEC areas, areas slated for development) rather than focus on the whole country, in one go, at the start?
‘The Gathering’ of elephants in Minneriya, now a world renowned attraction is the largest single congregation of wild Asian elephants anywhere in the world. There are serious concerns about the possible changes to the water draw off, and stocking patterns of the reservoir for irrigation purposes, and how it will impact the “Gathering’ in the future. No one really knows the actual number of elephants habituating this area (although numbers of 200 and 300 are talked about), the population dynamics and where this large number of elephants move out to, during the rainy season, what threats they face during this period for their long term survival etc. (although there is some pioneering work being done by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and Manori Gunawardene). Would not such a census in this area have had a far greater impact, and yielded much more useful information for the management of this valuable natural and economic asset ( from a tourism point of view ) that Sri Lanka possesses.
With the death of the famous Gangaramaya temple tusker ‘Navam Raja’ there is much discussion taking place about the dearth of tuskers both in captivity and in the wild. Basic observations and many wild life photographers’ experiences point to the high incidence of tuskers in the North Central (NCP) and North Western provinces (NWP). (Sri Lanka’s most magnificent wild tusker, Parakrama, who met an untimely and gruesome death whilst being hurriedly translocated, was also from this area.) Hence would it be worthwhile then to concentrate on a ‘census’ in the NCP and NWP to really gauge the population, demographics and dynamics of these elephants? This could then be used to prepare a comprehensive management plan for this area in particular.
While it may make sense to do a rough assessment of the entire population across the country, with the hope that comparisons can be done later on, to track changes, numbers cannot really be compared, as methods used may vary from time to time. Hence the advice from well qualified experts is that it would be better to start small and slowly, with a well planned and executed effort , than to start with a island- wide, bad system. ( Jayantha Jayawardene, a well-known expert on elephants also advocates such an approach)
What is more important than total numbers would be trends, changes and population dynamics of wild elephants in areas. The DWLC says that it hopes to come up with “not only elephant counts but also elephant pathways, health and injuries of elephants, and also the juvenile, sub-adult, adult and tusker elephant population in the island separately.”
Now this is more alarming. If the DWLC is cognizant of the fact, and accepts that a water hole count has its limitations, and is therefore embarking on collecting some basic data about the approximate number of elephants and their possible locations, then at least the magnitude of the problem is contained. But to state that such detailed and complex data, of not only herd composition, but also of elephant migratory routes and individual health status, can be derived from a fundamentally flawed methodology, is a much more serious situation.
Data and information is only as good as its accuracy and source, and what will be finally concluded and publicized will be a gamut of erroneous conclusions, which will have far reaching, and detrimental consequences on the management of the wild elephant population of Sri Lanka. It is the proverbial saying “a little information is a dangerous thing, in the hands of a fool”.
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool…shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is willing…teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep…awaken him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise…follow him……Chinese proverb
(The writer, a keen environmentalist and elephant enthusiast, is a senior tourism
professional, now attached to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce as Project Director of the EU funded Greening Hotels SWITCH ASIA project.)