In the past couple of weeks the temperatures at Victoria Falls in southern Zambia have risen sharply. Water levels in the Zambezi River continue to drop, exposing more of the banks and river bed, whilst the area’s rivers and streams are drying up. In a few special places the receding waters have left the ground still damp enough to create perfect wallowing pools.
These muddy patches are a huge draw for the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park’s elephant population. They offer much to elephants; a mud bath to help cool off in the rising temperatures, a sticky sunscreen against the blazing sun, and a thick muddy coating to remove and prevent parasites. But it’s not just the practical needs of elephants that are supplied by these wallowing pools. Their social life is also enriched by them. Multiple herds have been observed moving out of the thickets and coming together to create super-herds of 60 animals or more, to enjoy a good wallow together.
Different herds are coming together at these special places. Individuals can be seen meeting and greeting animals from other herds that they may not have seen in a while. Large males move amongst the group, clearly checking out the females and looking for mating opportunities. Young and old take advantage of the play opportunities the mud brings; rolling around in it together, sparring at the edges, or simply lying in the mud to take the weight off their feet for a while.
After a good wallow, what better way is there to end the day than to stand with a friend and watch the River go by, maybe contemplating the evening’s activities?
The elephants’ nocturnal activities are becoming more noticeable around Livingstone town, as the dry season deepens and the elephants leave the safety of the Park in search of food. Tracks, dung and evidence of feeding behaviour at night are being seen throughout the area, outside of the Park.
Many people are familiar with one of the species’ less desirable behaviours, from a farmer’s point of view; that of raiding crops. However, the nightly forays into community areas include other forms of human elephant conflict too. Elephants are known to push down fences, damage buildings and other infrastructure, such as water systems, and attack and even kill livestock and people. For example, our camera traps recently caught five elephants entering into the bounds of a local tourist lodge where they had previously broken the fence, in order to raid the lodge’s bins.
With our understanding of elephant movement corridors so far, we can see clearly the route these elephants took from the core area of the Park where they spend the day, navigating between lodges, an airfield, fences, walls, homesteads and other imprints of man, to get to these bins; a near nightly journey now.
It is our understanding of these behaviours and how this understanding can be used to help mitigate the various forms of conflict with people that is the underlying aim of the elephant programme.
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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.