Across Africa, elephants are frequent visitors to farms and villages as they roam the landscape searching for food and water - often bringing them into conflict with humans. Now a team of researchers including Tanzanian Alfred Kikoti and Mike Chase of Botswana are tracking the animals’ movements through southern and eastern Africa using satellite collars in an effort to understand their ecology and help prevent these conflicts.
The project is run by the department of natural resources conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Kikoti is a doctoral student and Chase completed his doctorate in 2007.
“Elephant populations have been increasing in Botswana and Tanzania since the late 1980s, when protection measures banned the international ivory trade,” says Curtice Griffin of UMass Amherst. “But human populations are also rising. Elephants graze in areas used by cattle and some raid farm fields, where they do a lot of damage in a short time. People have been killed when they try to chase elephants away or encounter them unexpectedly at night.”
The research team recently founded Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a nonprofit group dedicated to understanding elephant ecology and behaviours and developing elephant conservation programs. EWB is launching a major fundraising campaign in 2008 to build the World Elephant Conservation Centre.
Chase and Griffin have tagged nearly 50 elephants in northern Botswana and Namibia, a vast area of the Kalahari Desert. “Elephants aren’t staying in the parks,” says Griffin. “We have followed them from Botswana into Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they are moving across the Caprivi Strip of Namibia into Angola, where tens of thousands of elephants roamed before being decimated by 25 years of civil war.” As they recolonise southern Angola, the elephants move through mine fields without triggering the mines. Griffin suspects that their keen sense of smell helps them avoid the mines.
Kikoti and Griffin have also fitted 20 elephants with satellite collars in northern Tanzania. “The problem of human-elephant conflict is worse in Tanzania,” says Griffin. “There are more people and farms. Elephants compete for water with Maasai cattle in the dry shrublands and raid large farms on the western slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The satellite collars used to track the elephants are produced in South Africa using global positioning units outfitted with extra protection to survive the rigours of elephant life. Periodic downloads of satellite GPS data via e-mail lets Griffin check on the herds from Massachusetts. Data are used to understand the seasonal movements of elephants and identify important corridors used as they make their way across the African landscape.
Chase and Griffin have documented some of the largest seasonal movements of elephants in Africa, and shown that the corridors used by elephants can be narrow and hemmed in by villages and roads, which elephants try to avoid. Communities and governments are encouraged to keep these ancient elephant paths open and establish wildlife conservation corridors free of huts and farms. This information is also important for community development.
“Although having elephants near your village can be risky, they bring in tourists who bring in revenue,” says Griffin. “This is especially important in arid regions where there are few other sources of income. When communities realise they can earn money from tourists coming to see the elephants, they are much less likely to harm them when conflict occurs.”
Attaching collars to elephants is a dangerous job. “We dart them with tranquilisers from a helicopter, and we usually dart the matriarch, the old female herd leader,” says Griffin. “If she is down, the rest of the herd stays away while we put on the collar. If we dart another herd member, the matriarch will sometimes circle back and try to kill us.” Elephants stay in breeding herds of about 18, so collaring one member lets the team monitor the entire herd.
Collars are also attached to bull elephants. “When a bull is darted, the rest of the bulls could care less,” says Griffin. “In their search for mates, bulls have different movement patterns and indulge in risky behavior like traveling far from water. Bulls are fairly laid back compared to females with calves, but when they are in musth, a state of heightened breeding condition, they can be aggressive and dangerous.”
Griffin regularly leads student trips from UMass Amherst to Africa, and will be returning in the summer of 2008 for an 18-day safari. This research has been supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other donors. EWB works closely with governments and communities in Africa as well as private conservation organisations such as Conservation International, the African Wildlife Foundation and the Grumeti Fund.