Human-elephant coexistence in Wayanad, a key elephant landscape in the Western Ghats, by Ganesh T. and Anoop N.R.
Conflicts between people and elephants pose a serious conservation and social problem wherever the two share space and resources. Conflicts intensify as the habitats shrink, the climate becomes less predictable, and the people grow more and more intolerant. The Wayanad plateau is part of the Brahmagiri-Nilgiri Eastern Ghats Elephant landscape (Nilgiris) that supports the largest breeding population of Asian elephants globally. Wayanad in the Nilgiris is a unique geographical region with low-lying swamps and numerous perennial water sources, making it a key summer habitat for the elephants. But Wayanad experienced extensive forest loss, and has become a human-elephant conflict hotspot. 

Over 40 people have died and many injured over the last 15 years from human-elephant conflicts in the region. Currently, habitat fragmentation and degradation due to the spread of invasive plants, extensive livestock grazing and manmade forest fire are the major threats to elephant habitats.

In a landscape where humans and elephants have coexisted for centuries, we need to develop effective strategies to support both their mutual well-being. It is important to minimize the damage caused by elephants to the local communities while also building tolerance towards elephants. Hence, working collaboratively with local communities and other key stakeholders is crucial to arrive at conflict mitigation pathways. In Wayanad, the most important step would be to improve the highly degraded elephant habitat through science-based eco-restoration activities and management of rapidly spreading invasive plants. One of the options we are trying out is to plant economically important crops in farmlands unattractive to elephants. This way, it is possible to prevent crop depredation by elephants and also replace invasive species in the forest with native species. With such a comprehensive approach, we hope this would be a long-term solution for the farmers in the landscape, ensuring sustainable supplementary income and improving human-elephant coexistence.
Rainwater Harvesting to Resolve Drinking Water Crisis in Kuttanad, by Priyadarsanan Dharmarajan, Jojo T D, Reema Anand, Maneeja Murali & Sreekuttan
“Water water everywhere, not a drop to drink.” The classic line by Samuel Taylor Coleridge depicts the plight of the drinking water crisis in Kuttanad. Despite being intercepted by lagoons, rivers and canals, and acting as a flood plain of 5 major rivers in the state, people struggle to access fresh drinking water. In Kuttanad, intensive untreated human sewage and agricultural activities have caused severe surface water contamination. At the same time, other sources of freshwater are unreliable for drinking purposes Groundwater is acidic due to the soil conditions and iron leaching; freshwater from the public tap is infrequent and water supply from private vendors is extremely expensive.
During most part of the year, the land areas remain submerged in flood waters, and almost all the open water sources are heavily polluted, which causes an acute shortage of drinking water. In addition the acid sulphate nature of the soil reflects in groundwater quality. The freshwater supply is hugely defective due to urban encroachment, land reclamation for agriculture and tourism, fragmentation by transportation routes, untreated human sewage from dense settlements and intensive agricultural run-offs including fertilizers and pesticides. The construction of the Thanneermukkom barrage in the Vembanad estuary has greatly obstructed the waterway and created a stagnant water body causing eutrophication and allied issues. According to surveys by the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode, more than 80 per cent of the people in Kuttanad rely on contaminated canal water for their daily water requirements.

Rainwater is the only viable source of drinking water since open-dug wells are not feasible due to the peculiar terrain and soil types. Therefore, the best way to tackle the problem is to construct rainwater harvesting structures enabling the use of the abundant source of fresh rainwater that Kerala receives every year. Unlike other states in India, Kerala is blessed with regular rainfall: 60–65 per cent from the four-month-long southwest monsoon, which begins in June, and 25–30 per cent from the northeast monsoon from October to November. The rest of the rain comes during summer. The rainwater sample demonstrates a consistently low level of contamination and also satisfies the World Health Organization guidelines for drinking water quality. To increase a household's dispensable income, time and energy saved from collecting water.
Through the construction of 280 rainwater harvesting structures in Kuttanad, our project aims to
  • To enable selected beneficiaries to access clean and safe drinking water. Each rain water harvesting tank with a capacity of 10000 litres is designed to cater to 3 families, and 280 such plants will cater to 3360 beneficiaries. 
  • To create and train the user groups for the continued functioning of the installations
  • To set up an effective model of rainwater harvesting with public participation
  • To create water literacy among the general public
  • To help improve the health and sanitation status of the community
As per the project plan, through beneficiary orientation programmes, we are equipping the stakeholders to form user groups. Of the 280 user groups we have trained 142 user groups in 9 panchayats of Kuttanad so far.
Through this intervention, we managed to change the outlook of the Kuttanad farmers and witnessed a considerable reduction in the use of inputs in paddy cultivation. The demonstration plots also reflected the yield and net income. There was a visible change in how the farmers handled the existing resources factoring in the paddy ecosystem and the wetland ecosystem services. The intervention was upscaled into more padasekharams involving more farmers.
Protecting Open Natural Ecosystems (ONEs) in Maharashtra for People, Carbon and Biodiversity (project under the AREST alliance), by Abi Vanak and Anuja Malhotra
Tropical grasslands and savannahs are important for millions of people whose pastoralist livelihoods depend on this natural ecosystem. These grasslands are also home to diverse forms of wildlife including the blackbuck and the Great Indian Bustard. They play a crucial role in addressing climate change because they sequester huge amounts of carbon. Despite these vital benefits and the contribution of grasslands to India’s economic and ecological security, these habitats are declining rapidly. In fact, they may be considered ‘wastelands’ and are subject to land-use change and degradation.

To address the issue, we compiled a range of implementable and viable recommendations for grassland conservation in Maharashtra. We mapped the existing legal frameworks, conducted a detailed stakeholder analysis and identified high-priority areas in the state for immediate interventions in a policy brief.

In October 2022, we conducted a sensitization workshop at the Forest Department (Vanbhavan), Pune, to present this policy brief and the key results. It was a well-attended workshop with over 60 officers from the Forest Department (FD), including the Chief Conservator of Forest, Pune and all Regional Forest Officers. The workshop concluded with a productive discussion with the FD officers regarding the practical realities of implementing the policy recommendations and paved the way forward.
The overall response to the workshop was largely positive, and now we are presenting the policy brief and the key results to other stakeholders and at the higher levels of offices in the State. We want to ensure that planned and focused grassland conservation is embedded in the conservation policies of Maharashtra and subsequently of India.
Food Futures Initiative– A pilot initiative to link local, endemic and seasonal food with tourism in Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalaya, by Sarala Khaling, Sanjeeb Pradhan, Poonam Rai and Tenzing Sherpa
Indigenous wild edibles and fermented foods are an inherent part of the local diets in the biodiversity-rich Himalayan region of Darjeeling and Sikkim. Wild edibles still form an integral part of the seasonal diet for communities in both rural and urban areas. However, food habits and dietary habits have evolved with time, and the focus on food crops has shifted to incentivized cash crops. Changes in the food system over the years has led to the loss of traditional crops resulting in the loss of agro-biodiversity in the region and it has impacted the food system. Thus a pilot initiative to promote local, endemic and seasonal food as part of the rural tourism module was initiated in Rampuria Forest Village in the Senchel Wildlife Sanctuary, Darjeeling.

Food tourism an unexplored avenue in the region, could be used as a tool to provide economic benefits to communities. A vibrant local food economy would mean financial benefits to the local communities, which, in time, would lead towards restoring traditional crops and agrobiodiversity. Tourism is one of the principal components of economic development and welfare in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas. There is already a well-established tourism network all across the region and over the past few years, the government’s emphasis has been on rural tourism to ease out the overcrowded urban destinations. The existing dynamic rural tourism system could be the primary catalyst for promoting local food tourism.

A knowledge base of the local food systems was created by documenting wild edibles and local cuisines was constructed using a database. A pilot project of establishing a food destination in Rampuria was initiated wherein capacity-building activities and training sessions were conducted on local food for the women entrepreneurs involved with homestay operations and a network was established with the local entrepreneurs, travel and tourism operators including hotels.
Frugivory, fruit preference and seed dispersal by Asian elephants (Elephas maximus): recruitment patterns of elephant-dispersed plant species and their alternative seed dispersers across varying elephant densities, by Asmita Sengupta
Although research suggests that large-bodied animals may have functionally unique ecological roles, it is not clear how exactly their extirpation or decline will affect ecosystems. Such animals, however, are more vulnerable to extinction due to anthropogenic pressures like habitat modification and poaching. The elephant is the largest terrestrial animal and is represented by two species– the African and the Asian elephants. Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) currently occupy a small proportion of their historic range and are considered ‘Endangered’ because of massive reductions in their number. As these declines continue rapidly, it is imperative to assess how the decrease in Asian elephant populations will affect biodiversity and ecological processes. This study aims to do so through the lens of seed dispersal ecology.

Seed dispersal, driving regeneration and recruitment of tree species, is critical for the maintenance of biodiversity. Most tropical tree species are dependent on fruit-eating animals for their seed dispersal. The loss of African elephants is known to cause significant changes in the recruitment of many plant species. Fewer studies though have been conducted on frugivory and seed dispersal by their Asian counterparts. While no obligate fruit-elephant relationship has been documented yet for Asian elephants, fruit species that are preferentially consumed by them (relative consumption greater than relative availability) may be more adversely impacted by elephant population declines. However, there is no information on fruit species prefered by Asian elephants. Additionally, the impact of the decline of Asian elephants on the dispersal of plant species in their habitats is yet to be empirically evaluated. 
The project currently underway at the Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, will
  • Identify fruit species which are consumed, preferred and dispersed by elephants.
  • Assess- age class distribution (seedlings, saplings, poles and trees) of elephant-preferred fruit species across differing elephant densities.
  • Examine seedling recruitment patterns of elephant-preferred fruit species across varying densities of elephants.
  • Assess if elephant-dispersed fruit species are dispersed by other frugivores and if species richness and abundance of seedlings are functions of elephant densities.
In doing so, the study will examine how the role of elephants is affected as seed dispersers with declines in their populations. Identification of plant species preferentially consumed by Asian elephants will further aid in devising management actions wherein their ranging can be restricted within Protected Areas by planting more of these species and thereby reducing conflict with humans. This study will also enable us to identify other frugivores which may be important for the seed dispersal of certain plant species, especially in the absence of elephants. Finally, by disseminating the results of this study to the Forest Department personnel and local residents, awareness will be generated regarding the functional loss of elephants and conservation practitioners can use this information to devise strategies not just to prevent the absolute extinction of elephants but their functional extinction as well.
In Fond Memory
Christopher Davidson
(1944-2022), Boise, Idaho
A friend and supporter of ATREE, Dr. Christopher Davidson passed away on August 29th at the age of 79. Chris had a Ph.D. in Botany at the Claremont Graduate University in California. And later, he served as a curator at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
As a passionate botanist, conservationist, and philanthropist who enjoyed traveling worldwide to document flowering plants, Chris started the Idaho Botanical Garden in the 1980s. Flora of the world, a highly ambitious, personally funded project to document and photograph all flowering plant families in their native habitat, is one of his notable contributions.
Chris accumulated tremendous information on 481 plant families that are now freely available to the public. His quest to document the plant diversity took him to nearly 50 countries, to many of the world's biodiversity hotspots, and important mountain systems such as Chimborazo in Ecuador to the eastern Himalayas. R. Ganesan and Sandeep Sen from ATREE had the privilege to join Chris for a week-long exploration trip to the Alpine and Subalpine zones of the Eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim in 2019 summer. From his observations and extensive travel worldwide, Chris had a story to tell for each plant species they encountered.
Chris greatly differed in his approach and has an unfathomable knowledge of subjects ranging from taxonomy, geography, genomics, and biogeography to culture and history. Though out our trip to the Himalayas, Chris discussed the importance of conservation education and capacity building for students in tropical countries.
He generously supported ATREE's initiative to document the biological diversity in India. With his death, we lost a botanist with excellent knowledge and a light-hearted persona who was always willing to support research initiatives and conservation activities.
Our condolence goes to Sharon Davidson, who traveled with Chris and supported her husband in his pursuit to discover and document flowering plants.
In his honor, ATREE plans to set up a Chris Davidson Research Fellowship for Ph.D. students.
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