Researchers from India have highlighted the emergence of a new threat to the health and population of Asian elephants. In this new study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation, researchers systematically documented the presence of human-generated waste in elephant dung in and around the forested landscapes of Uttarakhand. Elephants in this landscape range in close proximity to human habitations and reportedly visit garbage dumps that have been accumulating around the forest edges.

Asian elephants rely primarily on wild grasses, fruits, roots, and tree bark for food. However, with the increasing fragmentation of forests, they often venture into human settlements to feed on cultivated crops. They end up foraging around garbage dumps carrying food waste, unable to segregate organic and inorganic waste in the process.

Researchers of the study, published by scientists from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Nature Science Initiative, and Wildlife Conservation Society - India, examined the diet of Asian elephants through dung samples from the edges and interiors of forested landscapes in Uttarakhand, India. 

Although previously observed, this study scientifically confirmed the presence of a large amount of plastic, alongside other human-generated waste, in the diet of Asian elephants for the first time. A large proportion of hazardous waste such as plastic cutlery, food containers, polythene bags, tetra packs as well as metal wires were found in the elephant dung. The dominance of plastic in their diet implies the continued widespread use of plastic and the lack of waste management. “Ingested plastic may leach toxic chemicals such as phthalates in elephant gut and may affect their reproductive system with potential impacts on their survival rates and population size” says Dr. Gitanjali Katlam, ecologist and the lead author of the study from Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

The study also found that the dung sampled inside the forest contained double the amount of plastic particles compared to the dung found on forest edges. This alarming finding indicates that the elephants carry plastic particles far into the forest. The plastic might enter the food chain through the species that consume elephant dung. This causes considerable damage to other species and the environment. The effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems and animals have been widely documented. However, this study also throws light onto the understudied aspect of the impact of plastic pollution on terrestrial animals.

The IUCN Red List categorizes the Asian elephant as ‘endangered’ and is under immense pressure due to habitat degradation, loss and fragmentation, persecution by people, and deaths due to accidents. This study establishes plastic pollution as a novel threat to our terrestrial megafauna and forest ecosystems. 

“Human habitations around natural habitats need comprehensive solid waste management strategies to address this problem” says Dr. Anant Pande, co-author and program head at WCS-India. This strategy involves segregation at source, mapping of garbage dumps and assessment of risk to wildlife. Mass awareness campaigns to educate the public on the perils of plastic pollution can also go a long way in addressing the issue of plastic pollution.