The Exodus has Begun
October 11 2016

Our research team in Livingstone are observing a sharp fall in the number of elephants in and around the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.  Despite a record number of elephants being observed in one day on the 24th of September, when at least 92 elephants were in the Park, sightings suddenly fell following a storm at the beginning of October.  Whilst the rainy season is not expected to start until mid-November, by which time each year the elephants of Livingstone return to wherever they came from, could it be that this early flash of rain was a signal for the elephants to begin to leave the area?

For the research team’s staff and interns, much of their time is spent scouring the landscape for elephants, and indications of their presence.  However there is another very important job that is undertaken in front of a lap top.  Processing the images of elephants to identify individuals is a detailed and time consuming job.  It is through this process, however, that we are able to create identikits that assist us in knowing which elephants are present in the area on any given day.

So far we have processed images from mid-May up to the end of July, and have identified over 280 elephants that have been present in the area at some point during that time.  Interestingly, only 11 of those have been observed at least once in all three of these months.  Yes, there will be cases where we simply did not see an elephant, even though it was present, however this small proportion adds further weight to our hypothesis that the elephants swim back and forth between Zimbabwe’s Zambezi National Park and Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park throughout the dry season, rather than migrating over to Zambia at some point and staying for the whole season.

Each elephant is given a sequential reference number to identify it.  However, we are human, and it is in our nature to name things, and so each also has a common name, which are easier for us to remember than reference numbers.  Three elephants have been seen most frequently over the course of the study so far.

Above: M0003 “Larry” enjoying a lie down and foot spa in one of the area’s mud-pools 

Above: F0008 “Torie” with her calf M0026 “Andrew”

Despite the apparent exodus of elephants from the survey area, one group of 18 males is frequently being seen swimming over to the Park early to mid-afternoon from one of the Zambezi River’s many islands.  The group make for an impressive sight, however once in the Park they then move north-east to leave the protected area and enter community areas where they enter into significant conflict with people.

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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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