Science News

A map that tells where elephants are

Richa Malhotra

doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.57 Published online 4 May 2015

Elephant distribution in Karnataka in relation to the forest cover and protected areas.

© M.D. Madhusudan et al

Ecologists have mapped Asian elephants in the Indian state of Karnataka down to the smallest forest administrative unit1. The detailed map, which shows where elephants exist inside and outside protected areas, could help conservation planning and minimize human–elephant conflicts.

Karnataka has the largest population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in India. But recent decades have witnessed increased pressure on their habitat and clashes between people and the jumbos. A detailed map of elephant distribution is crucial to understand where humans should get priority, where elephants should and where they can coexist. Yet, there is no microscopic map of Asian elephants anywhere.

To create a map, the researchers superimposed elephant distribution data of 16 years (2000-2015) from 2855 forest administrative units of Karnataka. They considered reports on elephant sightings or killings, elephant attacks on crops or humans and elephant census data from the state’s forest department.

They traced elephants in a total of 972 units, a majority of which (587 or 60%) were outside the protected areas. That elephants are present beyond protected area boundaries is no surprise because they wander a lot. But this 60% includes agricultural and human habitation areas, making them potential conflict zones.

Mysore Doreswamy Madhusudan, co-creator of the map and a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, says that since forest guards are deployed at the level of units, the map can directly feed conservation planning at that level. “It can help forest officials decide exactly where an emphasis needs to be put on conflict mitigation and where to increase patrols to minimize the risk of poaching…. Or, where to choose infrastructure projects over elephants or elephants over infrastructure,” he told Nature India.

Madhusudan and co-workers are now planning to carry out similar mapping projects for other southern Indian states where elephants exist. 

“Elephants straddle protected and non-protected areas. They do not stay within the administrative boundaries that we have drawn; they draw their own ecological boundaries that may look very different to us," he said.


1. Madhusudan, M. D. et al. Distribution, relative abundance, and conservation status of Asian elephants in Karnataka, southern India. Biol. Cons. 187, 34–40 (2015) doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.04.003