In November, the Supreme Court had directed 17 states to conduct a census of elephants in captivity by December 2018. This was in response to public interest litigation (PIL) to implement the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1960, which was meant to protect elephants in captivity. The Kerala government, in a project conducted along with the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB), has gone one step further.
The government not only conducted a census of the then-521 elephants in captivity but also conducted a DNA fingerprinting and created a DNA bank and Unique Identification Cards for all captive elephants in the states. On Tuesday, the RGCB handed over the DNA bank, a preliminary version of the ID cards as well as a report to Forest Department’s Chief Wildlife Warden PC Kesavan.
AK Dharni, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Forest Management), told TNM, “The Supreme Court had directed us only to conduct a numerical census of captive elephants, but we took the blood samples to maintain DNA samples, too. So now, we have a record of each elephant’s DNA, with the details linked to the owner. We conducted this DNA sampling and study on all captive elephants in the state. We collected samples for 521 elephants, of which, two died. So, we have the DNA records of 519 living elephants.”
In addition to collecting the DNA samples of captive elephants, the team engaged in counting and numbering them. “Just like human DNA, every elephant’s DNA is unique. It is currently illegal to sell elephants, and now that we have a record of each elephant and its owner, we can easily come to know if any elephants have been sold or traded by their legal owners. This will help crack down on the illegal sale of elephants,” he said.
Dr EV Soniya from the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, who headed the study, says, “There will not be any further dispute about these elephants now that the DNA fingerprinting has been carried out. Even if the elephant dies, the authorities can identify it clearly from even a small piece of tissue.”
She tells TNM that they aside from the DNA fingerprints, they have also created small ID cards for each captive elephant. The ID cards contain a photo of the elephant as well as a QR code, which can be scanned to reveal information about the elephants, such as their names, their owners and other details.
About the process of undertaking this project, Dr Soniya says, “Veterinary doctors collected blood samples from each elephant and brought it to our centre. We isolated the DNA, developed some DNA microsatellite markers and based a unique identification DNA fingerprint or DNA code for each elephant. It was a difficult process because it involves a lot of analysis.”
She also mentions that on the Forest Department’s request, they have also analysed and recorded some information about wild animals, based on tusk and dung samples from locations that wild, forest-dwelling elephants are known to visit frequently. “It is not possible to get blood samples from wild elephants. Hence, we have gathered some information and knowledge, although not full DNA fingerprints, about certain wild elephants through these samples as well.”