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February 2003

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Pachyderms Hit the Road
Desert elephants need sustenance, will travel

South of Timbuktu, in the Gourma region of the Malian Sahel, some unusual elephants are taking great strides. These beasts eke out a living at the northern extreme of the African elephant's distribution, showing remarkable adaptations to their desert environment. Scientists are intrigued by the animals' incredible journeys, which can cover an area twice that of other elephants. "Theirs puts all other migrations in the shade," says Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Kenya's Save the Elephants, who, with the Wildlife Conservation Society's Stephen Blake and other colleagues,  studied their movements.

Nine elephants were radio collared, but only three collars yielded data. A male's route doubled back on itself; two females made counterclockwise sweeps of the landscape (one's home range topped 9,000 square miles [24,000 square kilometers])—a donut formation unique to these elephants that may allow them to skirt urban areas. All three followed the rains, eating and drinking their way from water hole to water hole. And since desert pools can dry up in a heartbeat, says Douglas-Hamilton, "It's absolutely critical that they get the timing right."

The 325 or so Gourma elephants are a remnant group of a once widespread Sahelian population. They owe their survival largely to Mali's Tuareg and Peul herdsmen, who allow the elephants access to natural resources. "Human attitudes are the ultimate determinant for these animals," says Douglas-Hamilton. "With less tolerant people, they'd be wiped out." Still, climate change and desertification are degrading already meager habitat, and well-meaning development encourages permanent settlements and intensive livestock grazing—bad for pachyderms. "Their position is highly precarious," says Douglas-Hamilton. "Without wise land planning, it's curtains for these unique elephants."

—Jennifer Steinberg

Web Links

Save the Elephants
Researchers are tracking the unusual movements of elephants in the Malian Sahel. View Mali's elephants at this website and discover how they have adapted to life in the desert.

National Geographic News
Learn how researchers are using satellite tracking to keep tabs on nomadic elephants.

Free World Map

Alexander, Shana. The Astonishing Elephant. Random House, 2000.

Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, and Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Among the Elephants. Wytham Publications Ltd, 1975.


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