British zoo’s work in Assam wins major wildlife award

By Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS

London : An innovative Chester Zoo project that uses smoke bombs comprising chilli powder to ward off marauding elephants from human habitation and crops in Assam was awarded the field conservation award at this year’s annual BIAZA awards on Wednesday evening.

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Charles Walker, MP, presented the prestigious conservation and wild life awards at the Marwell Zoological Park in Hampshire on behalf of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA).

BIAZA is a conservation, education and scientific wildlife charity organisation founded in 1966 out of a mutual desire within the zoo and aquarium community to see sound principles and practices of animal management widely adopted in the British Isles and Ireland.

Called the Assam Haathi Project, Chester Zoo’s work in Assam on elephant conservation helps to mitigate human-elephant conflict. This work supports the conservation of one of the last remaining large elephant populations in the area and also the local people.

A BIAZA commendation went to Blackpool Zoo, also for elephant conservation, this time in Sri Lanka, involving habitat protection. Chester Zoo also received the best new enclosure award for their new forest area for Asian elephants.

Miranda Stevenson, director of BIAZA, said: “The award-winning programmes under the spotlight today demonstrate the huge investment of energy and resources made by our leading zoos to support habitat and species conservation.

“Conservation within zoos and aquariums is a vital part of the work to protect threatened species and to help change public behaviour and ensure the future of Planet Earth. These awards recognise and celebrate the vital contributions that our members are making to conservation and education each year. Equally, they are standard bearers for excellence in animal husbandry and welfare.”

Chester Zoo teamed up with the Assam-based conservation organisation, EcoSystems-India, and developed the Assam Haathi Project. The project works closely with local people, monitoring elephant movements and gaining a better understanding of their habits and needs in order to design practical solutions for the crop-raiding problem.

The project documents state that the overall aim is to facilitate the sustainable co-existence of elephants and people in the human-dominated landscape of Assam. The project hopes to achieve this through an integrated approach using community-based work and geographical and behavioural research.

The project’s paper states: “Keeping an elephant out of one’s backyard involves a combination of barriers, deterrents and early-warning systems. The type of mitigation method used depends on the circumstances at each site.

“We have begun to develop trials of non-lethal elephant control techniques such as tripwire alarms as an early warning device, and chilli smoke as a deterrent. These are low-cost methods that use locally available materials.

“Currently, we are also investigating the practicalities of temporary electric fencing for selective protection of homesteads during high-risk periods.”

The project uses Geographical Information System (GIS) computer software to track the movement of elephant herds and develop a sound knowledge of the elephants’ behavioural patterns.

By helping communities tackle their elephant crop raiding problems and safeguard their livelihoods, the project aims to increase tolerance and reduce the persecution of elephants.

“The data gathered may also help other conservation organisations and authorities implement long-term strategies and policies for elephants and other wildlife in Assam.

Reports from Assam say that wild elephants have killed over 600 people in the state in the past 16 years. In 2001, in the state’s Sonitpur district, villagers reportedly poisoned 19 wild elephants to death after they feasted on crops and trampled houses.

The BIAZA awards celebrate a year of achievements and ingenious solutions made by zoos and aquariums across Britain and Ireland. The winning projects have been selected against strict criteria. The assessors include external experts as well as professionals from within the zoo community.