Trip Report: PhD student Alex Kumar's work with elephant and tiger conservation in India


In May of 2017, I traveled to India to implement a workshop on Asian elephant research and conservation. This trip was a continuation of my work with WCS India, which began in the summer of 2015, during which I spent time in Bangalore analyzing data from tigers and leopards and ended up contracting dengue fever. However, even dengue couldn't keep me away as I returned to India, this time to the northwest region of Assam, which is one of the last strongholds of the Asian elephant.  I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Varun Goswami and Dr. Divya Vasudev from WCS India coordinate much of the workshop and pretty much all of our on the ground logistics during our stay.

I traveled to India with my girlfriend, Kara Dziwulski, who works for the International Affairs office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Although she was not there in any official capacity, it was a great experience for her meet some of the researchers that her office supports through their Asian Elephant Fund. Once we arrived in India we met Scott and traveled on to Guwahati the capital of Assam. After a refreshing drink and a fantastic meal (the mustard fish was unreal) we settled down for the night. The next day we drove to Kaziranga National Park home to the Indian rhinoceros and, of course, Asian elephants. We spent the next four days outlining a manuscript modeling elephant populations while incorporating the effects of elephant-friendly tea pioneered by Lisa Mills.

In between long hours of whiteboard sessions we were lucky enough to take a couple safaris into Kaziranga, by jeep and even on elephant back. Mammal species abounded as we saw lots of rhinoceros, water buffalo, swamp deer, hog deer and even had an entire elephant herd cross the road in front of us! During our last day staying near Kaziranga we visited a local tea plantation to learn the process of growing and making tea.

We had hoped to time the visit before the monsoon rains hit. Luckily, it was dry during most of our stay near Kaziranga, but our luck ran out as we were driving back from the tea planation. Monsoon rains soon made the road impassable and our driver fortuitously predicted a tree blowing onto the road, which he managed to avoid. After some traffic dodging we were able to circumvent the road obstacles and picked up a ride back to our accommodations. 

               The next day we returned to Guwahati for the 3-day elephant workshop. The first day and a half was spent on the science of elephant conservation with a focus on proper sampling design and techniques for rigorous elephant research. We were lucky to have talks given by Dr. Scott Mills, Dr. Marcella Kelly (Virginia Tech), Dr. Varun Goswami, Dr. Divya Vasudev, Chris Satter (Virginia Tech) and myself. Then the final day and a half was spent hearing about the trials and ultimately the triumphs of the many inspirational researchers and NGOs working in the region on elephant conservation. We concluded the workshop with a round table discussion about the future of elephant conservation in Assam. 

               After the workshop we traveled with Lisa Mills to her first “Certified Elephant Friendly” tea plantation Here, on the India Bhutan border, Tenzing owns a remarkable tea farm leading the way for sustainable tea practices. He has learned how to grow tea without the need of harsh chemicals or fertilizers and he retains native plants as ground cover that both support local wildlife and enhances soil and water retention. An added benefit of this model is that he can even intersperse various delicious plants such as mango, a cool pear/apple combination and lychee amongst the tea. With some of his tea profits he is even purchasing surrounding land to protect the native wildlife. While visiting with Tenzing we sampled delicious tea varieties and even saw flocks of endemic hornbills on his land.

               Next it was on to Bangalore where I met with Dr. Ullas Karanth about the paper on tigers and leopards I began with him during my first visit. Our trip concluded with a visit to some national parks in the Western Ghats. My second cousin was keen to drive us there and told us he would take us on a special route. I was a bit skeptical of his route especially since I had just talked to a colleague who is studying dhole for his PhD and he recommended a different one in order to see dhole. However, I went along with my cousin but since we would be traveling mid-day my hopes for cool wildlife sightings were low. Much to my surprise, however, as we entered BRT Wildlife Sanctuary we began to see chital, wild boar including some spotted piglets and even some elephants that caused a temporary roadblock. 

               But the coolest sighting was yet to come. As we rounded a corner a ranger drove by and told us there was dhole and gaur ahead. I immediately leaned out the window with my camera ready to shoot over the car. As the dhole came into view, much to my dismay, my cousin drove past them (he didn’t see them) and stopped by nearby gaur. Gaur are cool but they are by no means as cool as dhole so I had him backup to the dhole. There was probably 20 of them sitting and milling about the side of the road. It was a neat sighting for sure and I have my cousin’s special route to thank for it!

               The next day we visited Nagarhole National Park and went on an evening safari. During the evening we saw the usual cast of large animals readily seen there including chital, sambar, elephant, mongoose, macaque and peacock. But it was the next morning’s safari that lead to the best sighting of the entire trip as I finally say my first tiger, a beautiful juvenile male lounging by a waterhole.

               It was a great trip full of wildlife, workshops, teaching, tea and tigers and I am already looking forward to future trips back to India!

Alex Kumar, PhD Student, Mills Lab   

Feature Image: Tiger in Nagarhole


Working on the manuscript with Alex, Scott, Lisa, Varun, Divya and Kara


Workshop on Asian Elephant Research and Conservation in Northeast India participants


Alex, Kara and Scott on an elephant safari in Kaziranga National Park


Dhole in BRT