An important update on ALERT's elephant monitoring programme
July 19 2016

This is M1, the first male elephant for who an ID kit was created as part of ALERT’s elephant monitoring programme in Zambia.

M1 is a pretty chilled out elephant; content to wander around the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, stopping regularly to feed.  Having been observed now on multiple occasions, sometimes alone, sometimes with other males, this gentle giant has become a regular fixture on monitoring activities.

His acceptance of the research vehicle has provided us opportunities to observe how elephants utilise the Park at different times of day, to conduct behavioural studies to establish how the elephants partition their time between different activities, as well as providing us some very fresh dung to assess as part of our study of dung decay rates in the area.  Over 80 piles of 'poo' are currently being studied to assess how quickly they decay (often with the assistance of the many baboons in the area that sift through the piles in search of seeds to eat).  The results of the survey will assist us in the statistical analysis of data from dung count surveys to estimate the abundance of elephants in the survey area.

Interns Clausin Chulu (Copperbelt University) and Will Donald (Bristol University) revisit a dung pile to assess its rate of decay

An important part of the monitoring programme is to establish movement corridors from the core habitat used by elephants within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to community areas, where the elephants engage in significant conflict with farmers.

This past week, the research team waited at the edge of the core habitat in the Park, at a known exit point, with a view to tracking elephants as they moved out of the Park in the late afternoon.  It was M1 that arrived at the gate first, followed by three other males that we had not encountered before.  Just metres outside the Park gate are some dwellings, around which several people were going about their business.  The four males made a bee-line for some trees by these dwellings, and after feeding for a few moments moved on, having shown no aggression, nor unease, with the close proximity to the human onlookers.

Crossing over a road, the four elephants started off towards the Maramba River, some two kilometres from the gate.  The Maramba is a well-known corridor for elephants, but typically they are seen following the River before crossing over a main road and heading East.  Our foursome, however, elected to swim the River and headed into a thicket to the South. 

Anticipating their movements, the team repositioned to a road to the south that they expected the elephants to cross, but also gave a view along the main road should the elephants actually turn east.  Minutes later, the elephants emerged into a clearing under some overhead power lines, continuing in a southerly direction.   

Again, the research team repositioned to a regularly used crossing point on the main road.  Sure enough, the four elephants arrived at the road, and appeared to want to cross in a south-easterly direction.  This is a key finding, as the trajectory of the elephants would line them up with two previously observed elephant corridors to the south-east (marked in yellow on the map below).  These corridors lead to villages in the Makuni area, from where regular human-elephant conflict is being reported.  

The main road leading from Livingstone town to the border with Zimbabwe is very busy.  At the time the elephants were looking to cross, now early evening, the road was busy with traffic in both directions.  The elephants appeared quite unfazed by this, however things changed quickly when a cyclist came by.  As soon as the elephants saw the cyclist one of them charged.  Luckily for this cyclist, our research vehicle was close enough for him to get to before the elephant was upon him.  After a brief stand-off with this very large male elephant, he decided our vehicle was of no threat and he moved off down the road.  His three travelling mates crossed the road and disappeared into the thickets, however this now quite angry elephant continued down the main road for some distance, charging at the large queue of cars that had formed, but in particular focussing his attention on the cyclists that were trying to hide between those cars. 

No damage was done, and the elephants continued on their journey, as did the shaken cyclists.  Given the raised tempers and fading light, we decided not to continue to follow the elephants on this occasion.  However, we have gained some important information about movement corridors, and an insight into the elephants’ reactions to people in this human dominated landscape.

Livingstone is an area with a significant elephant population, and a rapidly rising human one.  For the wildlife authority to manage this challenging situation they need a lot of data about the elephants’ behaviour and movements to help them make the best management decisions.  Our programme is collecting that valuable data, and we hope that as we move forward, the wildlife authority will be able to make use of it to help ensure that elephants and people are able to co-exist more harmoniously in this area going forward.

Elephant crossing a main road (not the same occasion as described in this post)

About the Elephant Programme

In fragmented land-use mosaics the home ranges of African elephants feature a combination of protected and unprotected areas.  Ranging in human-dominated landscapes inevitably leads to interaction, and therefore conflict, with communities; most notably with farmers as a result of crop-raiding.  Understanding elephants’ use of land, both within and outside of protected areas, is seen as increasingly important to future conservation management of African elephant populations.

Increasing human populations and agricultural expansion within the Livingstone area of Zambia threaten to expand the human / elephant interface, likely leading to greater incidence of Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). The success of HEC mitigation strategies is dependent on the ecology and behaviour of elephants in an area, as well as the human socio-political and economic environment. Specific research on elephant populations in the region are sparse, and efforts to mitigate the conflict have largely been undertaken without rigorous planning or evaluation. This research aims to collect comprehensive data to assist in fully understanding the mechanisms behind HEC in this region.

This program, a partnership between the Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife, ALERT, Copperbelt, Western Kentucky and Coventry Universities, the Zambia Forestry Department and local communities, focuses on the following:

• Assessing seasonal distribution and abundance of elephants in different habitat types to establish key resource areas and movement corridors.

• Determining elephant population structure within these areas including population trends, herd sizes and male/female ratios

• Determining behavioural ecology of elephants

• Documenting human-elephant conflict amongst local communities.

• Assessing efficacy of different conflict mitigation strategies.

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