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Charting paths through community forests in Meghalaya

Study published in the Biological Conservation journal recently shows where animals, particularly elephants, move and why they choose some paths over others

An elephant feeds on plants in Garo Hills. Picture by Rohan Mukherjee

By ROOPAK GOSWAMI

Guwahati, Dec 2: Community forests in Meghalaya help elephants disperse, a new study finds.

A study, Detecting dispersal: A spatial dynamic occupancy model to reliably quantify connectivity across heterogeneous conservation landscapes, by  Dr Varun R. Goswami and Dr Divya Vasudev of Conservation Initiatives, a Northeast-based NGO and Dr Madan K. Oli, a professor at the University of Florida,  showed not only where animals move, but also why they choose some paths over others. 

The study was published in the Biological Conservation journal recently.

Dynamics of animal dispersal

“Animal dispersal can be studied using telemetry, but this is expensive, making it difficult to apply across many species. To solve this problem, Dr Divya Vasudev, a connectivity specialist, Goswami, and Dr Madan K. Oli, a professor at the University of Florida, developed a novel approach to understand animal dispersal. We show not only where animals move, but also why they choose some paths over others,” said Vasudev.

Importance of community-managed forests

Using this method, scientists have shown the importance of community-managed forests in allowing elephant dispersal in the Garo Hills Elephant Reserve. 

“Not only do elephants disperse through community forests, but the very presence of these forests in their neighbourhood gives elephants a sense of security, allowing them to go those few additional steps needed to reach their destination,” he said.  

Elephants and other animals need to disperse to survive, and their dispersal is increasingly threatened.

“Previous research has shown that the protected forests in the Balphakram-Baghmara landscape of Garo Hills play a very important and primary role in supporting elephant populations. But elephants need to move from protected forest to protected forest to meet their extensive habitat and resource needs. Between these protected forests are community forests, monoculture plantations, agricultural fields, jhum lands and human settlements. Our paper shows that among these land uses, community forests play an important role in facilitating elephant dispersal, by serving as a safe space with cover for elephants to move through,” said Goswami.

“Though the Baghmara and Balphakram forests are closely located, especially for an animal like the elephant that travels large distances, the risk of moving through lands used by people, makes the landscape seem vast. Thus, elephants either use community forests, or stick close to (less than 4km from) community forests while dispersing. This learning can be applied to other landscapes as well,” Goswami added.

“Like community forests, less protected forests (reserved forests) that may otherwise not support a high density of elephants, are important in allowing dispersal. Our study shows that elephants also moved away from villages, to areas where they saw less human presence, and hence less risk. Importantly, these two factors, distance between forests and risk in the landscape (how intensively humans used the landscape, had a compounded effect. So, even if the forests remain exactly the same but humans use the landscape more intensively, the effect of forest fragmentation (ie, distance between forests) is intensified, and vice versa,” he said.

Meghalaya forest department recognises 5 corridors

Scientists involved in the study said  the Meghalaya forest department recognises at least 5 corridors, all in and around the Garo Hills Elephant Reserve, but there are likely more. 

The Balphakram-Baghmara landscape within the Garo Hills Elephant Reserve is one of the most important elephant conservation landscapes in Meghalaya, for which they have highlighted important areas for elephant movement, over and above identified corridors. 

The elephant range in the landscape also extends to the border areas of Bangladesh.

“Finally, there is expected to be a fair amount of elephant movement between Meghalaya and Assam, along the border, right from Goalpara district of Assam in the west, through Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounds in the Ri-Bhoi district to parts of the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya to the east. A major proportion of these elephant movement areas comprise small forest patches, with human presence and use, and requiring a thorough assessment of elephant connectivity,” said  Varun Goswami, a senior scientist and elephant expert at Conservation Initiatives.

Elephants: Mega-gardeners

Aptly termed mega-gardeners, elephants travel large distances for their survival, and in the process, regenerate forests through the seeds they disperse. 

Other wild animals traverse large distances too. Tigers, for instance, can move across territories separated by more than 500km. 

Human presence and activity though, has restricted the movement of wildlife by 50 per cent to 67 per cent on an average, with some species being more severely restricted than others.

Need for caution in fencing forests: Study

The study also has relevance for the increasing practice of fencing forests. The study identifies critical entry and exit points of forests, but points out that these do not always overlap with identified corridors. 

This, the authors said, “emphasizes the need for caution in fencing forests or otherwise obstructing animal movement in and out of habitats”.

“This method will be useful for researchers worldwide to identify corridors and important connectivity areas,” said Goswami, emphasizing the need for scientific information in conservation planning. 

“Connectivity conservation planning is becoming all the more important with forest loss and fragmentation, and with climate change,” he added. 

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