Relocating Elephants Backfires

You can move an elephant, but you can't make him stay. After monitoring a dozen bull Asian elephants in Sri Lanka that were transferred—three of them multiple times—to national parks, researchers have concluded that relocation neither reduces human-elephant conflicts nor helps conservation efforts. Indeed, five of the translocated elephants ended up being killed within 8 months of their release, and the elephants killed five people.

"The Department of Wildlife Conservation [DWC] has been transferring elephants for many years," says Prithiviraj Fernando, a wildlife biologist at the Centre for Conservation and Research in Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka, and the lead author of the new study. "But it was never known what really happens to them." To find out, in 2004, Fernando, his colleagues from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and DWC began monitoring those animals that the wildlife department identified as "problem elephants." All were adult males, and all had been caught raiding crops, breaking into houses, or injuring people. Some had killed people by trampling them.

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) number between 35,000 and 50,000 individuals, and are found in highly fragmented populations in 13 south and Southeast Asian countries. They are extinct in 78% of their historic range, and are listed as an endangered species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Six thousand elephants remain in Sri Lanka; some 70% of these live outside of protected areas. Each year, more than 70 people and 200 elephants die as a result of human-elephant conflicts. Because of the elephants' endangered status and Sri Lankan sociocultural sensitivities, wildlife managers prefer to relocate problem animals, rather than kill them, Fernando says. "The practice was thought to mitigate human-elephant conflicts, and help conserve elephants."

But that's not what his team found. The 12 elephants that Fernando and his colleagues monitored were all captured by DWC officials outside of protected areas. The elephants were darted with tranquilizers and monitored by veterinarians, who also treated any existing wounds. Each elephant was fitted with a collar that collected the animal's GPS location every 4 or 8 hours. The scientists and their DWC colleagues also put GPS collars on 12 elephants that lived partly or completely outside the parks, 10 of whom were also identified as problem elephants, but were not translocated. These "resident" elephants served as a control. Each animal in the two groups was then tracked for periods of up to 3 years.

The relocated elephants fell into one of three groups: Those that tried to return to their original stomping grounds; those that left the parks and wandered far afield; and those that stayed in their new homes. There were only four of these settlers; five were wanderers, and three homers, as the scientists called them. Brigadier was a typical "wanderer." Released in Maduru Oya National Park, he left the area the next day and traveled almost 96 kilometers before reaching the sea. He continued his journey, swimming another 5 kilometers, but was recaptured by the Sri Lanka navy and returned to shore. He settled in another region, continued to cause problems, and eventually fell into a well and died. Homey, another translocated elephant, set off for home three times from three different national parks. He died 15 months after his first move from multiple gunshot wounds.

Even relocated elephants that seemed to settle in the parks sometimes made excursions to raid village crops outside. Some broke through the parks' electric fences or traversed deep trenches that were designed to keep the jumbos inside. "These barriers were useless," Fernando says. Four of the elephants boldly entered major towns, causing havoc, injuring and killing people, damaging homes and vehicles, and killing a water buffalo. All dramatically increased the size of their home ranges: the areas that they live and travel in. Whereas the 12 resident elephants had home ranges of 282 square kilometers, the relocated elephants had areas that averaged 1090 square kilometers. From the moment of their release, these elephants were basically trying to go home, the researchers report today in PLOS ONE.

"The translocations actually increased the problems with the problem elephants, " Fernando says. "They walked over huge areas that were unfamiliar to them, causing problems for themselves and for people. As an elephant management tool, translocation did not help the elephants or the people."

In stark contrast, none of the resident problem elephants traveled long distances or killed people, although one was shot dead for raiding.

African elephant researchers are not surprised by the results. "Translocation has become a popular method of dealing with intransigent human-elephant conflict," says Joyce Poole, an ethologist and expert on elephant behavior in Nairobi, who directs the conservation organization ElephantVoices. "Previous studies in Africa have demonstrated the increased mortality and likelihood that translocated elephants will walk hundreds of kilometers back home. But as this important paper documents, the effort is counterproductive and should be abandoned. It only serves to push the problem elsewhere."

The new study "affirms what we know about the Asian elephant's closest living relative, the African elephant, and reiterates recent similar calls for better evaluation of elephant translocations and examination of alternative solutions" for human-elephant conflicts, adds Noa Pinter-Wollman, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, San Diego, who has published several studies on the fates of 150 translocated elephants in Kenya.

In Sri Lanka, DWC often translocates elephants because of pressure from the local people, Fernando says. "We can tell the people now that it does not really work."