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Elephant Damage, DNA, and Dung
Photo Credit: Patrick Chiyo/Duke University
by Dr. Michelle Gadd
When Teddy Roosevelt was President, as many as 10 million elephants roamed sub-Saharan Africa. By 1989, however, fewer than 500,000 elephants remained in a tiny fraction of their former range. That year, countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to list elephants as an Appendix I species, curtailing unregulated commerce in ivory. Also in 1989, the U.S. Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act and established the African Elephant Conservation Fund, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
African elephant numbers have recovered in some countries, but are declining in others due to poaching, habitat loss, and conflicts with people. Today, an estimated 600,000 elephants remain in Africa. In western Africa, elephants are severely imperiled, surviving only in small populations within isolated habitat remnants. Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in central Africa continue to lose ground to logging and poaching for their ivory and meat. By contrast, some populations of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) in southern Africa are steadily increasing within confined protected areas, but they lack the space to migrate or shift their range in response to needs for food and water. In some parts of eastern Africa, elephants still occur outside of protected areas, but throughout the continent, conflict between elephants and local people is on the rise, particularly as more land is converted to agriculture.
From 2004 to 2008, the Wildlife Without Borders-African Elephant Conservation Fund (WWB-AFECF) provided $6.5 million to 137 projects, leveraging over $16 million in matching funds from other donors. More conservationists from Africa and elsewhere seek funds from the FWS for work in Africa every year, but we are able to support only about one-third of the requests. However, the conservation dollar goes a long way in Africa, and each year our grantees achieve amazing success with relatively little money. The WWBAFECF prioritizes projects that address illegal hunting, illegal trade, protected area management, capacity building within range states, community-based conservation, and reducing humanelephant conflicts.
Like any clever animal, elephants are attracted to free, tasty food. Ripening crops make an easy and nutritious meal, but unwanted forays lead to conflict between farmers and elephants. A single elephant can eat a family’s entire annual harvest in one night. Farmers often resort to chasing or shooting at elephants entering their fields, which too often has tragic results for both. Numerous people are killed each year attempting to defend their harvest, and vast numbers of elephants are killed while “raiding” a crop or in retaliation for raiding by other elephants.
Communities are desperately seeking solutions to prevent or minimize losses of crops to elephants and other wildlife. In order to do this, they need to understand how crop-raiding occurs. Is the problem limited to certain “problem elephants” or “rogues,” or will all elephants with acute senses be tempted to invade fields and eat what they can?
What one FWS grantee is doing to help
Patrick Chiyo, a Ugandan graduate student working with Dr. Susan Alberts at Duke University, had an idea that would help answer these questions. In recent years, technology has improved to the point that we can extract DNA from dung. From the dung left behind by cropraiding elephants, we can easily determine the sex of the raider and distinguish one individual from another.
Photo Credit: Jenny Tung/Duke University
In 2006, Chiyo received a grant from the WWB-AFECF to study crop raiding around Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. When elephants entered farm fields, he followed and sampled the dung left behind by the trespassers. He chose Amboseli not only because agriculture is encroaching upon elephant range at an alarming rate there, but because he could collaborate with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, the longest running study of savannah elephants on earth. This collaboration allowed him to interpret crop raiding behavior and other individual characteristics already known by AERP researchers. This way, he could determine how such risky behavior begins and whether it is more common in related individuals or is influenced by other life history traits and social characteristics (age, sex, dominance, group size).
After completing his doctoral dissertation at Duke University, Chiyo hopes to return to his home country to put his knowledge and experience to work. Thus far, his study has already revealed crucial insights. Testing the dung left at 274 crop raiding events, he proved that crop raiding was strongly linked to the offender’s sex—all of the incursions were by males!
Some researchers had hoped humanelephant conflict could be reduced by placing GPS collars on the individuals that raid crops, then using real-time data to anticipate and prevent future raiding events when those animals approach farming areas. On the other hand, managers hoped that collaring matriarchs (adult females that lead their groups of related females and offspring) to get a handle on large herds. However, Chiyo’s results indicate that collaring matriarchs or family groups is unlikely to solve the problem; crop raiders are overwhelmingly males, which are by and large solitary creatures. The explanation may be that females are more cautious than males, and the fear of encountering people may exceed the pay-off of a high calorie snack.
Among Chiyo’s other important findings are that crop-raiding males are larger for their age than non-raiders, half of the male population at Amboseli raided crops at least once during the study, and some individuals are repeat offenders. With these insights, we now have a better idea about the extent of the problem and which management interventions may or may not work. We look forward to other new questions and approaches suggested by the study, with the hope that we can find successful ways for elephants and people to coexist.
Dr. Michelle Gadd, an Africa program officer in the FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the African Elephant Conservation Fund, visit: www.fws.gov/international/DIC/species/afe/african_elephant.html
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