Royal Bardia II

 

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NEPAL ELEPHANT QUEST 2001

MORE GIANT ELEPHANTS FOUND IN NEPAL

(This Report appears with the kind permission of the Scientific Exploration Society) 

In February and March 2001 a team of 21 people from the Scientific Exploration Society (SES) visited The Royal Bardia National Park in Nepal to continue our long-term study of the Bardia elephants.

                  

The work moved on to a new level of investigation this year with our ninth expedition to the Park. Using jeeps and following elephant trails on foot, as well as riding elephants to penetrate thick jungle, we were able to cover a large area and locate several herds and smaller groups of elephants, more than doubling our existing database of the animals.

The largest herd comprised 25 individuals, mostly females and their young including small calves, showing that this endangered population is reproducing. They were accompanied by Raja Gaj, the largest Asian elephant in the world and clearly still the dominant bull in the region.

Several other bull elephants were also recorded and their individual features of tusk shape and ear tears confirmed that they are 'new' individuals, not previously seen. The proportion of adult bulls to females at Bardia is remarkably high, another healthy sign compared to other parts of the Indian subcontinent where poaching for ivory has greatly reduced the number of males.

The Expedition sent a small party to Suklaphanta Reserve, some 80km, west of Bardia. They found evidence of up to 20 elephants which according to local observers questioned by the team, are using the recently established "corridor" of habitat between Suklaphanta and Bardia - important for the herd's future well-being.

In Bardia, two skeletons of dead elephants found and studied by the group provided further interest. Their ivory had been removed but it was unclear whether they had been shot by poachers or had died of "natural causes" such as injury from fighting. However the skeletons were of great interest in providing a unique insight into the great size and pronounced domes of the Bardia elephants. One of the skeletons was that of Kancha, a celebrated "giant elephant" and Raja Gaj's former companion. Measurements confirmed his height as a massive 10'6" at the shoulder, showing that estimates on living animals from footprint size are accurate. The other skeleton also measured 10 feet at the shoulder, despite not yet being fully grown. Large footprints of at least one 'new' living male further confirm that the 'giant' size of Raja Gaj and Kancha is the rule in this remarkable population, not the exception. Study of Kancha's skull also showed how the head domes in life must form from soft tissue above and beyond the skull bone.

An unexpected sighting came at 3am one night when the alarm was raised. A wild bull elephant had entered our camp and was communing with our domestic females. Using an infra-red image intensifier, kindly loaned by JJ Vickers we were able to identify the male as Deep Gaj, whom we had catalogued on a previous visit, thus dramatically confirming his continued presence in the Park.

Back in the field, we made some fascinating observation on elephant behaviour. Bahadur Gaj, formerly "No 3" bull, has clearly moved into the "No 2" slot with the death of Kancha. Footprint measurements show him to have grown a foot in 5 years, making him a giant in his own right; accordingly, he now has his own constant companion in the form of a younger bull named Chimte. In this way our long-term study is providing new insights into the shifting relationships among male elephants. Following the expedition we will also be collating our extensive still photographs, video and field notes to update our inventory of the herd, now sufficiently complete to aid in planned tracking of migration routes and changing population numbers, essential for future management of the Park and its elephants.

Alongside the wild elephant study undertaken by the team several other tasks, complimentary to this work were carried out.

A veterinary study was conducted by the expedition vet and willing helpers at the request of the Senior Veterinary Adviser of the Government. Armed with a questionnaire and an interpreter, her team visited many of the surrounding villages examining the general health of the domestic animals. One concerning fact she discovered was that although Nepal has a policy of vaccination against the foot and mouth disease, which is conducted by a government vet, some areas had not received their annual vaccination for up to 3 years. With the close proximity to the park which is home to thousands of spotted deer, as well as hog deer, marsh deer, Sambar and the more rare Four Horned Antelope this could have disastrous consequences. Elephant are also known to be susceptible to the disease. The general health of the animals was reasonable although parasitism and deficiency diseases were obviously a problem made worse by the limited fodder at the end of dry season.

Following a report that someone had been killed by an elephant just before our arrival, we visited the village of Motipur, where the attack had taken place. A 12-year-old girl, sleeping in the grain store attached to the house, had been killed. An elephant had come in the night and had thrown the girl out of the way in order to reach the grain. This is the first confirmed report that someone in the area has been killed by an elephant showing that efforts must be stepped up to help reduce the conflict between humans and animals living in such close quarters together and is a reminder that wildlife conservation must encompass the human angle. The bull had returned in search of more grain every night after the incident for around 12 days and had been chased off by the villagers. We sent a small donation of money and gifts to the family and posted a couple of team members on an all night vigil with the image intensifier in case the elephant returned. He did not, though we were able to identify that he was over 10 foot high from his footprint found in a field of onions.

We also carried out an extensive land and water mapping survey of the Park which has never been done before in such detail. This will be invaluable for future tracking of the elephants and was extremely helpful this time as a new waterhole was found which had been frequently and recently visited by the elephants. The tracks were followed on foot until the herd was found. Around 25 elephants were spotted and it is thought that this herd was the same as the one seen further the north the previous day. 

As a whole we had extremely good tiger sightings - with a total number of 6 tigers seen. No expedition to Nepal would be complete without the adrenalin surge from seeing a tiger at close range. One day a domestic elephant almost stood on a large male tiger who roared his disgust and streaked between our mounts in a blur of orange and black. This year was also the first time we saw a leopard - whose close proximity to our tents raised people's blood pressure somewhat.

Using a Nera satellite phone we spoke to two schools in England and one in Germany on three consecutive nights. The schools had been following the expedition via the reports and photographs we were sending back daily to a special website set up by Affno, accessed through the SES website. One school had Nepali children who spoke with our naturalist Ram Din in Nepalese.

On a more negative note the practices of a Norwegian conservation group, staying in the park for the purposes of radio collaring tigers, were not considered to be at all responsible by the SES team. The group were carrying out their radio telemetry on 2-stroke motorbikes which were thought to be a strong contributing factor to the decrease of game seen by our team in the main area of the park in comparison to previous years. Rubbish, including razor blades and broken bottles were discovered in their vacated campsite and a buffalo calf was found tethered as live bait for the tiger with neither water or shade. Complaints have been made to the relevant authorities about this group with the hope of preventing further abuse of this outstanding nature reserve.