Daily and Seasonal Behaviour Changes in Elephants
August 19 2016

Throughout our elephant monitoring programme in and around Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, we have observed clear daily movement patterns. 

During the mornings, the elephants could be located (represented as purple dots on the map) throughout a core usage area of the Park (shaded green in the images below), although focussed in an area of dense thickets in the centre and east of this core area, where the herds would spend a lot of time feeding.  Frequent sightings were also made to the far west of the Park.

By the afternoon and into early evening, however, the location of elephants is clearly different (green dots).  As the sun begins to drop, many elephants move to the south east of the core area, before exiting this section of the Park.  At sunset elephants can be seen congregating by the Maramba River, in the eastern section of the Park.  The herds stop here for a drink before moving into community areas where they enter significant conflict.  Various regularly used corridors (shown as green lines in the maps) are used by the elephants. 

We are gradually building our understanding of these movement corridors.  Whilst we now have a fairly good understanding of movements to the edges of the Park, we are still to build a comprehensive picture of how they are getting from these boundaries to the community farmlands.  This is a challenging exercise due to a lack of roads, coupled with the fact that these movements typically happen after dark.

In addition to the daily changes in behaviour, another change has recently been observed.  Between May and July (winter) the elephants could mostly be found within the core area of the Park.

However, the pattern is clearly different in August, as the temperatures being to climb.  The largest herds are now seen by the Maramba River in the eastern section of the Park, whilst smaller herds are regularly seen throughout the far western section.  The thickets in the centre of the core area seem to have been deserted almost completely.

The question to answer is, clearly, what has happened to cause this rapid change in behaviour?  The change has coincided with rising temperatures as winter draws to a close, but is most likely related to the grasses dying back throughout the area, and the probable decline in the nutritional value of the tree species found in the thickets in the core area of the Park, as the dry season continues to deepen.  During the 2016 season, we are focussing on elephant abundance and movement, however this behaviour pattern highlights necessary future research into the changing seasonal nutritional content of the vegetation in the area as a potential driver of this changing behaviour.

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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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