Elephant And Man - The Ongoing Battle
December 13, 2012

Studies Find Culprits To Drop In Elephant Populations

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Researchers say that violence in Mali is threatening the survival of endangered African elephant populations.

The team wrote in the journal Biological Conservation that recent violence in Mali may be putting the animals as risk.

During the two-year study, the researchers tracked the elephants' migration with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars. The research could help advance conservation for the animals, which face increased armed conflict in Mali between government forces and Touareg rebels.

"In recent years, the Mali elephants have largely managed to maintain their numbers in extreme natural conditions of heat and drought," said lead researcher Jake Wall, a University of British Columbia (UBC) Dept. of Geography PhD candidate. "The uprising occurring in northern Mali puts them at greater risk, as does increasing human settlement in their traditional territory and the growing risk of ivory poaching."

This study focused on the Gourma elephants in Mali's northern region. This species of elephant faces sand storms, water shortages, and temperatures over 122 Fahrenheit.

The study reveals that the elephants travel nearly 20,000 miles annually in search of food and water, which is the largest area ever recorded for any elephant species.

Researchers of the study identified 10 "hot spots" that are essential to their survival that should be protected for conservation purposes.

A surprising find from this study is that male and female elephants only share about a quarter of their ranges.

"We think the difference is partly because of their tolerances towards people," Wall said. "Bulls generally take more risks and occupy areas that have higher human densities. They also have varying food strategies and we think that differences in the areas they occupy might be because of different vegetation types in those areas."

Some of the population decreases have been tied to elephant ivory. Experts say that terrorist groups use illegal ivory trade to help fund their army.

While the Gourma elephants have been seen in this study to suffer from human violence, another elephant study on Asian elephants looked into animal and human conflicts.

Over 70 humans, and 200 Asian elephants are killed each year in Sri Lanka due to human-elephant conflict. Experts try to avoid this by moving the elephants away from humans, putting them into national parks.

However, this study, which was published in PLOS ONE, found that simply moving problem elephants can actually lead to more conflict and more deaths of both humans and elephants.

"What happened with some of the translocated elephants was quite unexpected," according to the paper's lead author Prithiviraj Fernando, a Smithsonian research associate and chairman of CCR. "Most of these elephants didn't stay put; they left the relocation area and ventured back into agricultural lands, causing problems."

These researchers also used GPS collars, monitoring 12 translocated, adult male elephants. They compared their movement and propensity for conflict with 12 males that were left in their normal home ranges.

They found that two of the translocated elephants were killed within the national parks where they were released, and the rest of the elephants left the parks within 260 days. Some of the elephants moved back toward their capture site, while others wandered over large distances.

According to the study, nearly all of the translocated elephants were involved in human-elephant conflict after their release, killing five people during the study period.

"There are many ongoing translocation projects based on the assumption that this technique is effective, and our joint study is the first comprehensive assessment of whether that's true," said Peter Leimgruber, SCBI research scientist and co-author of the paper. "We were stunned that translocation neither solves the conflict nor saves elephants."

The studies both indicate that more research is needed in order to get a better understanding of what needs to be done in order to salvage dwindling elephant populations.