Small population with restricted habitat

A small population with restricted habitat represents the most difficult management situation. Let us assume a population of about 10-50 elephants at a density approaching the carrying capacity of the habitat. Examples of such populations can be found in central India, Sumatra, and West Africa. A fundamental consideration in management would be the low viability of this population in demographic terms, even without accounting for environmental fluctuations or catastrophes. This would be accentuated by the low growth rates of populations under density-dependent regulation. Any mortality due to extraneous factors, such as conflict with agriculture or hunting, would be disastrous for population viability. Such a population is, however, also likely to be in serious conflict with humans for several reasons. Its natural ranging propensities would tend to take it beyond the restricted habitat boundaries. The greater ratio of perimeter to area of the habitat would result in increased contact between elephants and agriculture, resulting in some conflict-related deaths.

However, should such a population be managed? The first option would be to relocate the elephants in a much larger area, perhaps where other elephants are found. There are some examples from Sri Lanka and southern India of "pocketed" elephant groups being moved to other areas by driving them across intervening agricultural areas. If the distances involved are considerable, the drive method will not be feasible. With a small group of elephants, a traditional method of capture, such as the kheddah (or drive into a stockade), may still work. Immobilizing the animals in the field with drugs and subsequently transporting them to the release site is the preferred method in the more open African habitats, but it is a logistical nightmare in dense rain forest. The experience with capturing and transporting a pocketed elephant from Vietnam's Tan Phu Forestry Enterprise areas generally has been disastrous, with many elephants dying and the head of the first field operations being killed by an aggressive matriarch. With many small Asian elephant populations, the only option may thus be to capture the elephants for taming.

If the decision is to keep the elephants in the wild, a very proactive management plan has to be put in place. A small population with restricted habitat may have to be insulated completely from any contact with people, agriculture, or livestock to avoid mortality from conflict or transmission of diseases. The habitat will have to be maintained for high productivity of suitable forage as well as adequate water sources to reduce dry season mortality. Systematic monitoring of the population's demography and health status will be needed to detect potential problems and make timely intervention. The issue of a narrow genetic base would still remain, but with restricted habitat, the translocation of individuals would be a difficult choice.

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