Elephant (Elephas maximus) temporal activity, distribution, and habitat use patterns on the tiger's forgotten trails across the seasonally dry, subtropical, hilly Churia forests of Nepal

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Understanding spatial distribution, habitat use, and temporal activity patterns is important for species conservation planning. This information especially is crucial for mega herbivores like elephants as their ranging patterns encompass a myriad of habitats types. Churia habitat is geological fragile yet important for wildlife in Nepal and India. We used camera trapping and sign surveys covering 536 km(2) of Churia and surrounding areas within Chitwan National Park. Across 152 trapping locations, we accumulated 2,097 trap nights in a 60-day survey during the winter season of 2010-11. We used a non-parametric kernel density function to analyze winter activity patterns of elephants detected in camera-traps. Additionally, we walked 643 km over 76 grid cells in two surveys (winter and summer) to estimate elephant distribution and intensity of habitat use using an occupancy framework. Multi-season models allowed us to make seasonal (winter versus summer) inferences regarding changes in habitat use based on covariates influencing use and detection. We photographed 25 mammalian species including elephants with calves with a trapping rate of 2.72 elephant photos events per 100 trap nights. Elephant winter activity pattern was found to be mainly nocturnal, with crepuscular peaks. Covariates such as normalized differential vegetation index and terrain ruggedness positively influenced elephant spatial distribution and habitat use patterns within the Churia habitat. We also found lower elephant habitat use ((Psi) over cap SE((Psi) over cap)) of Churia in winter 0.51 (0.02) than in summer 0.57 (0.02). Elephants heavily used the eastern portion of Churia in both seasons (67-69%). Overall, Churia habitat, which is often ignored, clearly is used by elephants, with increases in summer use in the west and high use year-round in the east, and thus should no longer be neglected or forgotten in species conservation planning.