7 February 2023
New research identifies innovative ways to help elephants and people co-exist
African elephants are being forced to move outside protected spaces or cross borders due to a lack of space. As a result, they are coming into greater conflict with humans, threatening livelihoods and putting themselves and people’s lives in danger. It is therefore crucial to find ways to help increase mankind’s tolerance to wildlife while ensuring both human and elephant safety.
Elephants Alive, a South African-based NGO, has recently published new research, which shows that a holistic approach is needed to promote human tolerance to elephants and conserve important wildlife corridors.
Using a variety of research techniques, including a novel cafeteria-style study and trans-boundary satellite tracking across four different countries, the researchers were able to formulate key approaches to improve farmers’ tolerance of elephants. These include understanding elephants’ movements, as well as ensuring food security and human safety.
Dr Michelle Henley, co-founder and principal researcher at Elephants Alive, says “We believe this research to be ground-breaking as the studies are novel and the holistic combination at landscape scale unique for some countries like Mozambique.”
Elephants Alive has been tracking elephants since 1998. During their decades-long research they have found that pathfinding elephants are moving through human-dominated landscapes. In fact, some landscape-planning-elephants are known to trek from the Kruger National Park in South Africa across southern Mozambique, back into a different province in South Africa, through Eswatini, and finally returning to Kruger.
Their most recent research shows that elephants could be moving along ancient routes, identifying the key wildlife corridors to be protected. As elephants are keystone and umbrella species, meaning they enable other species’ survival within the ecosystem, it is imperative that these corridors are maintained. Failure to do so could result in more human-wildlife conflict which - if left unaddressed - may result in the linkages being closed off completely. Understanding the movements of the elephants along wildlife corridors helps with placing local conflict in context over the broader landscape and shows us where ecological connectivity between protected areas is most needed.
Dr Henley says these trailblazing elephants are challenging us to think of innovative mitigation strategies to protect people’s assets, to increase our tolerance, deepen our understanding of inclusivity and respect both our and their history of the land:
“The elephants’ movements are our call to action to not only understand their spatial requirements but to urgently work towards ways to make people’s livelihoods compatible with conservation outcomes, so that coexistence and connected landscapes can prevail”, says Dr. Henley.
The research was conducted in various phases. Phase one involved satellite tracking the elephant movements across two trans-frontier conservation areas (TFCAs).
“We set out to investigate the extent of transboundary movements of elephants many years ago as amalgamated conservation areas across borders planned to expand over time,” Henley said.
The elephant movements stretch close to 3000km across the Greater Limpopo and Lebombo Trans-Frontier Conservation Areas and include four countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Eswatini). This allowed the research to identify key wildlife corridors across national boundaries and in deed of protection.
One of the main reasons for human-elephant conflict is elephants raiding local farmers’ subsistence crops. Phase two therefore involved testing which types of crops proved unpalatable to elephants. This was done using innovative cafeteria-style studies with semi-habituated elephants. Various plants were short-listed for their potential economic value as food, essential oil, medicine and/or bee fodder plants in combination with how unpalatable they proved to elephants. Propagating these plants as soft barriers around food crops can ward off marauding elephants while also diversifying people’s income amid changing economic markets .
The third phase involved ensuring people’s safety and food security by deploying Rapid Response Units to reactively respond to crop-raiding elephants and scare them away before they do any damage.
Henley said that the research was not an easy task and relied on outstanding teamwork and collaboration with the Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação of Mozambique (ANAC), who granted permission for Elephants Alive to collar the elephants.
“It has always been and will always be like this, only scientific research and innovative technology will help us find solutions for complex problems so that humanity can coexist with nature. Science has helped to ensure the longevity of humans and likewise it can be used to protect and conserve elephants and ecosystems. The research presented here represents the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ by contributing towards the ethology of the elephant and the coexistence and tolerance with local communities. The participating organisations are to be commended with providing ANAC with scientific information to better carry out its role in a sustainable way, applying nature based solutions”, said Mohamed Harun - Senior Technician at ANAC and Professor of Animal Physiology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
The Mozambique NGO Mozambique Wildlife Alliance has been instrumental in implementing the first Rapid Response Unit to ensure human safety, a critical aspect to the new approach developed by Elephants Alive:
“The Rapid Response Unit is a simple and economical response. Thanks to our donors and a team with an open mind the Rapid Response Unit, soon got the support of the communities wherever it went to deal with the elephants using non-lethal, low-disturbance methods and a basic understanding of elephant behavior. This is a community-based response that can be replicated in many places, resulting in increased tolerance, less damage to crops and people’s livelihoods. A high-level intervention such as capture and translocation of elephants is expensive and decided on only when these alternatives are exhausted. This maximizes the great benefits elephants bring to humans by maintaining a viable and healthy environment”, said Dr. Carlos Lopes Pereira – Strategic Director at the Mozambican Wildlife Conservation Association, known internationally as the Mozambique Wildlife Alliance, and wildlife veterinarian, who headed Protection and Law Enforcement at ANAC for 15 years.
The research by Elephants Alive contributes to the ecological processes that support the coexistence of elephants, their habitat, and people: “if elephants are to survive, we must invest in scientific knowledge in order to deepen our understanding of their movements and spatial requirements in combination with understanding the socio-economic needs of the people that share the landscape with elephants,” Dr Henley said.
Dr. Lucy King, Head of the Human-Elephant Co-existence Program for Save the Elephants, has established the value of using beehive fences to protect people’s crops in many countries. By combining the beehives and elephant-unpalatable crops with a high market value, farmers living in hotspots where elephant travel is prominent, can implement two soft barriers that generate an income while protecting crops: as elephants are scared of bees, the beehive fences produce honey for sales and simultaneously improve crop production through pollination.
“We are running out of time to protect both the future of elephants and the safety of communities living side by side with them. By investigating novel crops that are unpalatable to elephants as well as being bee-friendly by providing sustenance to bees living in protective beehive-fences, Henley et al., have taken an important step towards seeking human-elephant co-existence for this special elephant corridor in Mozambique,” Dr King said.
By understanding elephants’ movements and ensuring food security and human safety, human tolerance of elephants will increase. Elephants moving across human-dominated landscapes also depend on places where they can hide from people during the day, and these are often characterized by vegetation of a specific height and tree stem density. Established corridors thus offer additional employment and income opportunities in the long term. For instance, benefitting either women, as a part of spatially explicit tree-planting schemes, or both men and women in terms of patrolling corridors to ensure the safety of wildlife and people. Implementing the various phases forms part of Elephants Alive’s long-term strategy towards ensuring the protection of bioregions and achieving biodiversity on a greater scale.
For a full copy of the research article Click here
For further information please contact Dr Michelle Henley on +27 71 006 3900 or email email@example.com