Tag Archives: african elephants

Elephants at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Elephants increasingly become more nocturnal to evade poachers

Every year, some 30,000 African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are slaughtered by poachers throughout the continent. The elephants, some of the most intelligent creatures out there, are not oblivious and have adapted by drastically altering their foraging patterns.

Elephants at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Elephants at a waterhole in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Traditionally, African elephants are on the move looking for food during daytime and rest under the cover of darkness. The sudden uptick in poaching for ivory, however, has forced elephants to reverse the pattern.

Researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands in collaboration with NGO Save the Elephants tracked 60 elephants in northern Kenya with GPS devices for up to three years from 2002 to 2012. The animals were tracked as they foraged in and around the Laikipa-Samburu ecosystem, just three hours drive from Nairobi. One paper published in 2015, found poaching in Laikipia-Samburu increased heavily over this period, peaking at 70% of all recorded deaths in 2012.

It’s no wonder that the elephants have recognized the pattern of violence, seeing how most of their peers perished gunned down. After they compared elephant movement with poaching activity databases, the researchers found females reduced daytime activity by about 50 percent on average in high-danger zone compared to low-danger zones. In other words, nighttime movements of the elephants increased significantly in sync with poaching levels.

Forced lifestyle

Female elephants forage in close-knit families, often with calves at their side while the bulls are more solitary. Despite entrenched foraging strategies and mating patterns, African elephants have now been forced to change their way of life. By staying more active at night, they’ve now become vulnerable to nocturnal predators like hyenas or lions. Even so, human poachers seem to be a much bigger threat.

“As most poaching occurs during the daytime, their transition to nocturnal behavior appears to be a direct result of prevailing poaching levels,” Festus Ihwagi, a researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said. 

This shift in foraging patterns might do the elephants good in the short-run but their long-term survivability is put into question. Elephants have evolved to forage during the daytime over the course of millions of years and it’s not very clear how this recent shift in response to poaching will affect their long-term adaptability.

The most vulnerable areas in Africa to elephant poaching are colored in red. Most are located in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Chad. Credit: GREAT ELEPHANT CENSUS.

The most vulnerable areas in Africa to elephant poaching are colored in red. Most are located in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Chad. Credit: GREAT ELEPHANT CENSUS.

Long-term survivability might matter very little in light of the massive uptick in poaching on the continent. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, some 100,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory, which is sold mostly on the Chinese black market. African elephants populations have declined by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to a recent estimate.

Local governments with the help of many wildlife NGOs are trying to do something about it. Many elephant habitats have been declared national parks, and public ivory-destruction is performed frequently — the most recent in Kenya saw 7,000 tusks burned. Earlier this year, three rangers were killed and two were injured by poachers in Congo — one of many similar episodes happening in central Africa, and not only, where the fight against poaching can be fatal.

Corruption is the biggest threat to the elephants though. “High-level corruption and poor governance are helping enable sophisticated international trade,” said Paulinus Ngeh, director of Traffic in central Africa. And beyond poaching, which is indeed the most immediate threat, habitat loss and competition for food with humans are also helping drive the African elephants extinct.

“Poaching attracts a lot of media attention, but it’s only part of a big picture,” says Julian Blanc of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. “If we somehow stopped poaching tomorrow, elephants would still be in big trouble.”

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Elephants walk on their tip-toes and it’s literally killing them in captivity

elephant

Credit: Pixabay

The elephant is known in popular culture as a wise animal, not an elegant one. You’d be surprised to find out, though, that African elephants walk on their tippy-toes despite having a huge foot which measures 4.4 feet (1.34 m) in circumference.

Elephants on high heels

Olga Panagiotopoulou, an evolutionary morphologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, wanted to get to the bottom of an oddity. Many captive elephants are plagued by foot problems which not only changes their gait in an awkward way but in time can grow in a disease. Every year, elephants from zoos and conservation sites need to be euthanised because there’s nothing that can treat them, Panagiotopoulou said.

The debate has come up with two primary candidate explanations: either the captivity itself is driving the elephants to change their gait and ultimately ruin their feet or something in the environment is to blame. The two are so well connected, however, that it’s very difficult to single out the leading factor.

Testing elephant walking is very challenging but Panagiotopoulou and colleagues found a way. They trained five African elephants (Loxodonta africana) from a park in South Africa to walk over a platform that was fitted with pressure sensors. When an elephant walked over the platform, the researchers could then map the load distribution along the foot.

The results of the tests made on African elephants were then compared to those made on Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in a zoo in England using the same pressure plates. This analysis revealed that when elephants walk in wild or semi-wild environments, they put the most pressure on the outside toes of their front feet and the least pressure on their heels. The outside of their feet is, not coincidentally, where most instances of disease occur.

Because zoos and certain conservation park often have harder surfaces, even asphalt, the findings seem to explain why captive elephants have to deal with sore feet on a daily basis.

“We know that elephants in captivity get diseases that we don’t see in wild individuals as much, but the major question for conservation purposes is what can we do to prevent them,” Panagiotopoulou told ABC Australia.

It’s not like we can release elephants in the wild overnight. Captive environments are crucial to elephant conservation in Africa where poachers are having a field day. Since 2007, the African savanna lost 30 percent of its elephants to cut-throat poaching.

Instead, Panagiotopoulou is proposing the wide scale introduction of pressure plates to monitor the health of elephant feet. If an animal is at risk, future development of foot disease might be avoided through trimming.

“You can change the trimming approach to move the weight away from the part of the foot that is injured or can even create elephant orthotics to stop disease progression,” she said.

Rhinos also experience similar difficulties. They might also walk on their tippy-toes and we’ll soon learn when Panagiotopoulou and colleagues use pressure plates to study their gait as well.

Findings appeared in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Elephant dung density and range reduction across the Central African forests. . Increasingly darker shades of green correspond to higher densities, grey represents extremely low elephant density rang and and white is non-habitat. (c) PLoS One

Central African elephant population more than halved in a decade

An international team of researchers set out on the daunting task of surveying the Central African elephant population. Their results offer a new harsh cold shower as to the critical situation wildlife our planet is currently in. Their findings suggest the African elephant population in the area has plummeted by a staggering 62% and their range has dwindled by 30% since 2002. This means that in the past 25 years alone, African elephants are 80% as fewer.

As you can imagine, estimating the elephant population over such a vast area that stretches through Cameroon, Gabon, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, and the Central African Republic was no easy task. Some 91,600 combined man-hours were required to survey the 13,000 kilometers of land, as the researchers carefully analyzed animal dung density to infer elephant numbers. Their data suggest that there only as many as 100,000 individuals are currently alive in Central Africa, down from 700,000 mere decades ago.

Elephant dung density and range reduction across the Central African forests. . Increasingly darker shades of green correspond to higher densities, grey represents extremely low elephant density rang and  and white is non-habitat. (c) PLoS One

Elephant dung density and range reduction across the Central African forests. . Increasingly darker shades of green correspond to higher densities, grey represents extremely low elephant density rang and and white is non-habitat. (c) PLoS One

Habitat loss and agricultural activities have had their part to play in this dramatic demise, however the major factor is heartbreaking – poaching. During the past few years, ivory – a luxury commodity that is harvested from elephant tusk – has soured in prices, driven especially by high demand in China. The local poor and under educated African populace is easily seduced by the prospect of making big money fast, which has lead to a frightening increase in poaching.

With this new data at hand, the researchers hope to sway regulating organizations to move African forest elephants  from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered” on International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, in hope that this action might prompt more action from local and international authorities.

Findings were reported in a paper published in the journal PLoS One.

Tusk DNA tracking to handle illegal trade

International treaties to protect the elephants are not working – that’s the sad truth. There is no real, practical way of enforcing them, and as a result, whatever few elephants are left are still being tracked down and hunted, mostly for their tusks. Researchers estimate that tens of thousands of African elephants are now being killed by poachers each year, from a total wild population of around 400,000.

A bull elephant grazes in South Africa's Kruger National Park

I think tusks look best on elephants… how about we leave them there?

“It doesn’t take much math to show we have a serious, urgent problem,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

It’s estimated that a total of 39 tons (!) of illegal ivory were traded worldwide in 2011, with the number constantly growing or at the very best, remaining the same. We have every reason to believe that the number for 2012 will be even bigger than that. Poachers get about US$1,600 per kilogram in the Far East, but that number may very well be higher in other parts of the world. Many measures, plans and etc have been adopted, but so far, there’s been little to no improvement.

“We’re really at a tipping point, I think,” says George Wittemyer, an ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. “We’re seeing declines in the species as a whole and we’re seeing poaching spread into what were once untouchable safe havens.”

Indeed, it’s That is the stark message that Wasser and others will deliver to policy-makers in Bangkok next week, at the triennial conference of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The thing is, it’s almost impossible to get some accurate estimates – because of the sheer size of the elephant territory and the rough conditions there.

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So Wasser and his team has developed a map of DNA samples collected across Africa which he plans to use to pinpoint the origin of the ivory, giving a more accurate depiction of where the ivory is coming from. He wants CITES to increase forensic scrutiny of the huge stockpiles of ivory in many African nations, so authorities can know where most of the ivory is coming from and increase efforts in those areas.

“There are probably not as many of these poaching hotspots as people might think.”

Meanwhile, others are working on the matter as well. Alfred Roca, a geneticist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (who demonstrated that in fact, African elephants are two different species) has used mitochondrial DNA to trace ivory hauls – he believes that this could very well complement Wasser’s work.

“It’s very important to source these large-scale ivory seizures. It should be mandated through CITES that there is forensic examination of the shipments so the source can be determined,” says Tom Milliken, the elephant expert at wildlife-trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, which is headquartered in Cambridge, UK. Milliken will be presenting the ETIS data at the Bangkok meeting.

However, nothing is going to work in terms of elephant protection until sanctions aren’t applied to countries illegally exporting ivory.

“We have reached a moment when the threat of sanctions is certainly warranted,” says Milliken.

China is killing Africa’s elephants

The number of elephant poaching in Africa has increased dramatically, as well as the Chinese demand for ivory, and according to most, this is not a coincidence at all. The growing demand for ivory in China, combined with the country’s growing influence on the dark continent work together and are leading to the tragic decline of elephants, which are being killed for their tusks.

In only the latest incindent, Thai custom agents have seized over two tons of ivory, hidden on a ship. The 247 tusks discovered officially on March 30 are estimated at about 3.3 $million, illustrating (even if just vaguely) the size of the poaching and smuggling taking place in Africa. The head of the Kenya wildlife authority blames China for slaughtering over 100 elephants in the last year alone, an accusation that should not be treated lightly; he also has some facts to back up these charges:

“Ninety percent of all the people who pass through our airports and are apprehended with illegal wildlife trophies are Chinese,” said Julius Kipng’etich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Meanwhile, China is investing billions in Africa in all sort of deals, mostly trading highways and railways for the natural resources which pump its ever growing economy.

“China is the major driver for trade in ivory and that is linked to China’s phenomenal economic growth, the level of disposable income there, a re-embracing of traditional culture and status symbols in which ivory plays a role and the phenomenal increase of Chinese nationals on the African continent,” said Tom Milliken, regional director for east and southern Africa at TRAFFIC, a group which monitors the global wildlife trade.

Similar accusations have come from South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and more other countries, but a firm measure against these actions is yet to be taken.

Pictures via Global Post