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Dr. Sukumar’s Lab: Forests, elephants and the environment

Do you know how many Asian Elephants are killed illegally for ivory and in conflicts? How dynamic is the tropical dry forest? What does changing fire intensity do to the forest? If you were to enter the Elephant and Forest Ecology Laboratory of Dr. Raman Sukumar at IISc these are the questions that will greet and get you thinking as you walk by posters showcasing the group’s work.

Prof. Sukumar dons many hats, and has been marking his contribution to the field of wildlife conservation and forest management over the years. He even contributed for over a decade to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. If you look back in time at his achievements -- Chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN (1997-2003), the Order of the Golden Ark (1997), the Whitley Gold Award for International Nature Conservation (2003) and International Cosmos Prize (2006) to name a few – they showcase his dedication and passion to promote sound research, his love for the forest and his attempts to bridge the gap between science and conservation policies.

Sandeep Pulla, a PhD student, says “What drives the work here is the passion for field work and curiosity to ask questions on forest ecology, elephant behavior, human-elephant conflicts and paleo-environments that can helps us better understand and contribute to science”.

We need to understand our forests before we intend to do anything about it. How do we know what is going wrong with the forest if one does not study how the forest has thrived over the years? What has changed, or remained the same? Who and what has caused this change? Time, space, wildlife, human disturbance and other environment factors bring about changes in the forest structure, composition and diversity. This is the undercurrent of forest ecology studies in the lab. They look at the forest and also see the forest for the trees.

The group has spearheaded the setting up of a Long Term Monitoring Plot at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu. Changes in the composition, structure and functions of forest ecosystems typically occur over long periods of time. This is possible with long term monitoring of permanent plots that can provide information on patterns and the rate of changes occurring in forest ecosystems. This plot set up by IISc is the only such permanent plot in India, established in 1988-89 in collaboration with the Centre for Tropical Forest Science – Forest Global Earth Observatories (CTFS-ForestGEO) <http://www.ctfs.si.edu/>.

Dr. Suresh shares his experience of being a part of this novel initiative in India. “We wanted to understand more about the forest ecosystems, sustainable forest management and monitor the impact of global climate change. An establishment of a 50-hectare permanent plot and a standard protocol seemed to be the apt solution to our interests;” he says.

The deciduous forests at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve were selected due to many reasons. It was considered an ideal site that would complement the plots in the tropical semi-evergreen forest in Panama in South America and an equatorial evergreen forest in Malaysia by being a different vegetation type. Also, this deciduous forest was known to be a source of timber and the researchers thought that a study on the logged forest could give them insights that could be useful for sustainable management of such forests. For Prof. Sukumar, this was also a forest with many elephants and he wished to study their role in the dynamics of the dry forest.

Ramya Bala, an interdisciplinary PhD student of Centre for Earth Sciences and Prof Sukumar at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, enjoys reconstructing paleoenvironments. The current climate is different than that of earlier periods; the climate, vegetation, temperature, relative humidity, has changed considerably on earth over time. Paleoenvironmental reconstruction is the investigation undertaken to uncover the biological, chemical and physical nature of the environment for a specific time and place.

Ramya looks at peat to reconstruct the past climate. Peat is a highly organic material formed from plant matter, generally in wet areas, that is not able to decay fully due to conditions that are

acidic and lack oxygen. “Peat has the ability to preserve organic matter without degradation and this makes it suitable for reconstructing the past”; she says. Something like time travelling, using a scientific lens. In the Nilgiris you can travel back to at least 40,000 years before present.

How are the trees coping with the changing climate? What was the climate like in the past? What influences temperate forest dynamics? These are questions that seem to be going on in the mind of Rayees Malik, a recent PhD student in the Lab looking at the impact of climate change in the temperate forests of the Himalayas.

The elephant in the room

The Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximus) is one animal you are not likely to miss in this lab, well not in person, but in any discussion with Dr. Sukumar or any of the students in his research team. Researchers here are working on questions on Asian elephant ecology and management, social and reproductive biology and human-elephant conflict.

Nachiketha SR is part of the long-term population monitoring project on Asian elephants. The project first started in 1988 in Mudumalai, Nagarhole and Periyar, is an important ongoing initiative that helps the researchers keep track of the health of the Asiatic elephant and better understand the pachyderm’s population dynamics. Vani Dahiya, a PhD student is looking at crop raiding behavior of Asiatic elephants in Kodagu, Karnataka.

Did you know elephant dung helps unravel tales in the lives of elephants?

Dr. Ishani Sinha, Research Associate, aims to use her skills in molecular biology to learn more about elephants using the DNA extracted from their dung. Another PhD student, Ekta Chauduary, is looking into how dung can unravel tales of nutrient cycling amongst these gentle giants.

Sanjeeta S. Pokharel, a PhD student, is all excited about stress. No, she isn’t stressed out but works on stress biology in Asian elephants. How is the elephant’s physiology affected when stressed? Does the season affect stress levels and is there are relation between stress and conflicts? She animatedly discusses studies done by her senior on Asian elephants. “Dr. Ratna Ghosal has had some interesting findings in understanding stress responses in elephants. Her

work shows that the male elephant is able to judge if a female is in reproductive phase by detecting specific pheromones in the dung”, she says.

The staff and students in the Lab seem charged up. The group is as diverse as the tropical forests they all work in, and the work they have been doing is as fascinating as it is varied.

About Dr. Sukumar’s lab

Dr. Raman Sukumar heads the Elephant and Forest Ecology Research Group; a part of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.  A vibrant team of about 15 members including students and staff drive this lab.

Dr.  Sukumar can be reached at rsuku@ces.iisc.ernet.in;Website: http://rsukumar.weebly.com/