Decreasing reservoir water levels improve habitat quality for Asian elephants
Population health and habitat quality are intimately related and seasonal changes in habitat quality are likely to be reflected in the body condition of animals. We studied seasonal variation of body condition in free ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka based on visual scoring of individually identified elephants. We assessed the body condition of 218 adult females and 329 adult males from January 2008 to November 2012 and examined its relation to monthly rainfall and water level of the Udawalawe reservoir. Contrary to expectations, body condition of elephants was higher in the dry season, when primary productivity decreases due to lack of rainfall. However, the body condition showed both a seasonal and inter-annual negative co-relation with reservoir water level. A possible explanation for improved body condition in the dry season is the greater availability of fresh grass due to the emergence of reservoir bed grasslands with the drawdown of water. Our results underscore the importance of water management of large irrigation reservoirs in elephant conservation in Sri Lanka.