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Blog - Elephants Kabini Backwaters

Wild Elephants in Nagarhole National Park, India

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Nagarhole National Park is situated in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. It gets its name from the Kannada terms, nagar, meaning snake and hole, meaning river, after the river that winds through this rich tropical forest and flows eastwards towards the centre. The Nagarhole River joins the Kabini River and acts as a boundary between Nagarhole and Bandipur National Parks.

Nagarhole Park was constituted a sanctuary in 1955, covering an area of 258 square kilometers. Over the years the park was expanded to cover an area of 634 square kilometers and in 1983 it was granted the status of a national park. Nagarhole National Park is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, an area of 5,520 square kilometers in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala which includes the Kabini Forest Reserve, Bandipur National Park, Mudumalai National Park and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, each linked by wildlife corridors. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986, is home to one of the largest concentrations of Asian elephants in the world. It is difficult to find accurate elephant population statistics complicated by the annual migration, but there are estimated to be over 8000 Asian elephants in this reserve.

The landscape of Nagarhole National Park is comprised of gentle slopes and shallow valleys and includes forestland, grassy swamps, as well as streams and rivers. The park is rich in biodiversity and is home to an abundance of wildlife including tigers, leopards, Asia elephants, gaur (Indian Bison), dhole (Indian wild dog), chital spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, four-horned antelope, langurs, macaque monkeys, sloth bear, wild boar, mongoose, civet, otter, crocodiles and more than 250 species of bird. The park has a high density of tigers and leopards, whose populations have been on the rise in the past decade due to the large number of prey animals and the success of park ranger’s efforts to protect these endangered species. An elaborate system of motion detecting cameras have been set up around the park and have recorded images of over 90 individual tigers over the past year.

Nagarahole National Park has a large population of Asian elephants and the abundance of grass growing along the banks of the Kabini River attracts wild elephants throughout the year. The Kabini River flows from the state of Kerala into Karnataka, and passes through one of the most pristine wildlife reserves in India. The Kabini River and several smaller streams running through the forest afford great views of the natural landscape and wildlife. The Kabini dam, built in 1974, submerged large tracts of forest creating a substantial lake, which extends into the national park. During the dry season, the Kabini River shrinks, exposing the river bed which quickly becomes carpeted in grass. When the rest of the park is drying out, these green pastures and the abundance of food along the banks of the river attract one of the largest congregations of Asian elephants in the world.

The Kabini backwaters with their fertile banks attract between 600-800 elephants during the peak summer months in a normal year. Elephants require at least 200kg of vegetation a day together with plenty of water making the Kabini backwaters a true paradise for them during the dry season. In recent years though, the effects of climate change have resulted in prolonged droughts in the area, which has impacted wildlife populations, especially that of elephants. In 2016, the usual congregation of elephants along the banks of the Kabini River dwindled to about 120 individuals due to the dry conditions. Instead, several elephant herds migrated elsewhere in search of better foraging, and some raided neighboring farms. In response to the drought, the forest department has used tankers to fill waterholes frequented by wildlife. However this is a short term solution with a limited impact.

Stray cattle and the impact of humans encroaching onto the reserve have put a lot of pressure on this delicate ecosystem. Each year human settlements expand further into the edge of the forest. Roads passing through the national park result in animals being killed so the government has responded by closing the roads at night.

Every five years, a systematic attempt to estimate the elephant population of India takes place, the most recent being carried out in May 2017. In 2012 the population of wild elephant in India was estimated to be between 27,785 and 31,368. The 2012 census estimated that there were 6072 elephants in the state of Karnataka alone. Four states; Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh account for 40% of the India’s elephant population with a total of over 12,000 individuals. The synchronized census in southern states will provide valuable data on elephant populations and distribution as well as migration patterns. It is hoped that this information can be used to develop strategies to reduce human-elephant conflict, which has been on the rise in recent years due to the ever-growing human population.

Nagarhole National Park and the Kabini River together form a rare and unique eco-system. It is hoped that this great expanse of natural habitat will be well protected so that the wildlife here, including an important elephant population, will continue to thrive.

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