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Focus on elephants

2013/08/14 01:47:57 PM

Professor Rob Slotow heads up the the Amarula Elephant Research Programme, whose efforts contribute to African elephant conservation and the management of elephants in wild areas.

Newly collared elephant part of the Amarula Elephant Research Programme

  The changing natural landscape has seen an increase in restriction of elephants to small, fenced reserves, posing unique problems to the management of game reserves across the African continent. The large size and social nature of elephants, their vast consumption of vegetation, and their steadily increasing numbers have all contributed to debates on the necessity of population control to protect biodiversity in southern Africa. 

Addressing this and a number of other issues related to African elephants, the Amarula Elephant Research Programme (AERP), active since 2002, stands at the forefront of research related to African elephant behaviour. The Programme is funded by the non-profit Amarula Trust.

With a keen awareness of conservation issues related to African elephants, Amarula’s global marketing spokesperson, Siobhan Thompson, highlights the fact that ‘everything learned through the Programme can be applied to better elephant conservation management’.

The Programme, directed by University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Professor Rob Slotow, is intended to strategically contribute to African elephant conservation through research initiatives directed towards management of elephant in wild areas in South Africa and other parts of the Africa.

Initially conceived as a five-year research initiative with a R3m grant from Amarula, the Programme’s success has seen it being extended twice – first by three years with an additional R1 million in funding, and then for a second time in 2010. In the same year the Programme became the concern of the newly formed Amarula Trust, and the extension for an additional three years saw almost a R1 million in funding allocated to support the Programme through to July this year.

The Programme brings together the expertise of a range of disciplines within UKZN, as well as from other academic institutions, both in South Africa and internationally. Utilising a team of researchers, PhD, and MSc students – the Programme has involved government conservation agencies, private game reserves, and ecologists – all engaged in generating elephant management plans based on data collected through a number of key scientific research projects.

Understanding the movement of elephants provides pivotal insight into a number of issues relating to the management of these majestic animals, and the AERP has made this a key focus of its research activities. Using the modern technology of Global Positioning Systems on elephant collars the movements of elephants have been successfully documented, and the Amarula Trust provided a special donation of R250 000 in 2009 to enable the expansion of this activity – a substantial part of the donation being used to replace old collars or collar new elephants. 

The collars automatically record the location of an elephant every 30 minutes, and then download this information through the GSM cellular network, or directly to Satellites. This has provided researchers with amazingly high resolution and accurate information regarding the movements of elephants in real time. Using indices such as rate of movement, or the number and angle of turning behaviour, insight has been provided into how elephants are responding to local conditions. 

An elephant is fitted with a collar as part of the Amarula Elephant Research Programme
Dr Hofmeyr, Dr Govender, PhD candidate A. Delsink and Pilot G. Knight fit an elephant with a collar.
After collaring, an elephant awakes and shakes it's head as it adjusts to the collar.
Moments later the elephant awakes and shakes it's head, as it adjusts to the collar.

Professor Slotow has noted that ‘it is important to use information on how the elephants perceive their conditions, rather than imposing our view onto the elephants. An important environmental change that influences a number of management decisions is the change in seasons, especially the coming of rains at the end of the dry season’. 

The research has also involved investigations into the effect of elephant, fire and other causes of mortality on large trees in the Kruger Park. The impact of elephants on large trees is one of the main concerns of conservation managers as well as the public, and work done in the AERP has served to illuminate a number of factors relating to this issue, by providing a harvest of important evidence to work directly from. 

The AERP’s collaborations with outside institutions have been pivotal in its success. Joint research with the University of Wageningen on the TEMBO project which focused on the greater Kruger Park, saw, for example, Henjo de Knegt demonstrated the difference in male and female habitat use, and the importance of the spatial extent of the environment that they use to make decisions. 

An exciting collaboration with Karen McComb (Sussex) and Graeme Shannon (Sussex and UKZN), used playbacks of lion roars to test the importance of experience in appropriately responding to different conditions. Young female matriarchs responded to male and female lions, or one or more lions, in the same way. However, older, experienced female matriarchs responded more to three male lions roaring because they could identify that three males were a real threat to them, whereas one male or female lion would not be. Experience allowed these females to moderate their response so that they only reacted to real threats. The results emphasised the importance of conserving intact elephant social structures. More exciting work from this research is currently being reviewed for publication. 

Together with &Beyond, the AERP has also been engaged in an initiative to protect the rare Sand Forest which is under threat from elephants at Phinda Private Game Reserve. Once disturbed, Sand Forest habitat is slow to regenerate and becomes susceptible to alien invasion, making it vulnerable to fire. The Programme has used a series of interventions including the erection of two-strand electric fencing 1.4 metres above the ground. The fences prevent the entry of elephants but allow the freedom of movement of other animals. The successful outcome of the project has prompted other reserves to follow similar interventions to protect Sand Forests elsewhere. 

A major outcome of the AERP has been in Human Capital Development, and a substantial number of PhD and MSc students have graduated from within the Programme.

Barrington Marais

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