National Geographic Magazine's WildCam Africa

Elephant Research

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Photo: Elephants

It was a life-changing assignment. In 1998 Jeanetta Selier, an honors student at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, began a special research project. Her task was to study why a group of adolescents was bothering others, acting aggressively, and generally misbehaving. The juvenile delinquents she was studying, however, weighed more than a ton each and stood about eight feet (two meters) tall—just about normal for an African elephant.

“They were harassing the white rhinos,” says Selier, speaking of her project located at Kruger National Park in South Africa. “The goal was to establish the reasons for their behavior, find possible solutions, and determine their impact on an enclosed game reserve’s resources.”

Photo: ElephantShe didn’t know it at the time, but the project gave Selier a glimpse of her future as an ecologist and elephant researcher in the Central Limpopo Valley between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. “That was my first exposure to elephants, and it changed my life,” says Selier, who has spent the last six years at Mashatu Game Reserve studying the local herds that meander over the borders of South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Researchers believe the elephants—numbering about 1,300—are descended from relic herds of tens of thousands, and are now part of the largest group in southern Africa. When Selier arrived to begin her study, tracking them by radio collars and identifying them as individuals, the elephants were also considered among the most aggressive animals toward humans in the region—the result of bloody interactions during two centuries of the ivory trade and the wide-scale expansion of agriculture across the savanna in the 1900s.

Since the 1989 international ban on African ivory, elephants have made a remarkable comeback. A recent report by the African Elephant Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) showed that estimated populations of elephants in eastern and southern Africa have increased from about 283,000 in 1998 to nearly 355,000 in 2002. Most of the population swell occurred in southernmost Africa where there are numerous protected sites. That area is experiencing an annual increase of about 5.4 percent.

But the animals’ success in protected game reserves is beginning to create a problem of overpopulation. Elephants are ravenous creatures that—in the wild—must eat between 220 and 440 pounds (100 and 200 kilograms) of vegetation and drink about 60 gallons (230 liters) of water a day. Their quest for food is putting pressure on neighboring lands where they crash fences, destroy crops, and damage water and irrigation systems. In protected ranges such as in the Limpopo Valley, elephant overpopulation can deplete resources for other animals. Yet, elephants, other herbivore species, climate, and fire contribute to the ecosystem’s balance. Scientists are still trying to determine how.

Selier feels pressure to intensify her research, which centers on monitoring the movement of elephants, particularly the dynamics of when and where a herd roams and which individual animals follow nomadic patterns. “By determining the factors controlling the movements of the various groups,” Selier says, “we will be one step closer to solving the problem of elephant management.” The result: peaceful coexistence between these giants and their most dreaded predator—humans.

(Photographs by Roger de la Harpe, Africa Imagery)


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