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Keywords:

  • abundance;
  • population density;
  • individual identification;
  • open population;
  • India

Abstract

In addition to the threats of habitat loss and degradation, adult males of the Asian elephant Elephas maximus also face greater threats from ivory poaching and conflict with humans. To understand the impact of these threats, conservationists need robust estimates of abundance and vital rates specifically for the adult male segment of elephant populations. By integrating the identification of individual male elephants in a population from distinct morphology and natural markings, with modern capture–recapture (CR) sampling designs, it is possible to estimate various demographic parameters that are otherwise difficult to obtain from this long-lived and wide-ranging megaherbivore. In this study, we developed systematic individual identification protocols and integrated them into CR sampling designs to obtain capture histories and thereby estimate the abundance of adult bull elephants in a globally important population in southern India. We validated these estimates against those obtained from an independent method combining line-transect density estimates with age–sex composition data for elephants. The sampled population was open to gains and losses between sampling occasions. The abundance of adult males in the 176 km2 study area was N̂(SÊN̂) = 134(14.20) and they comprised 14% (±1%) of the total elephant population. Time-specific abundance estimates for each sampling occasion showed a distinct increase in adult male numbers over the sampling period, explained by seasonal patterns of local migration. CR-based estimates for adult male abundance closely matched estimates from distance-based methods. Thus, while providing abundance data of comparable rigour and precision, photographic CR methods permit estimation of demographic parameters for the Asian elephant that are both urgently needed and difficult to obtain.