Study of GPS collars could protect elephants from poachers

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A new GPS study helps answer questions about not only where and when African elephants in Gabon move, but also why.

The study provides the first landscape-scale documentation of elephant movements through and between seven national parks in Gabon.

How can you protect an endangered elephant if you don’t know where it is or where it is likely to go next? This is the dilemma that environmentalists and forest rangers in this central African country face in their battle to protect their remaining population of critically endangered forest elephants from poachers, who hunt and kill animals for their ivory and other threats.

The large size and dense vegetation of the pachyderm range, coupled with the idiosyncratic movement patterns of many elephants, can limit the ability of conservationists to track an animal’s whereabouts and determine when it is most. likely to encounter a danger.

Analysis of hourly location data collected over two years from 96 forest elephants wearing collars equipped with satellite GPS reveals that their movements are determined by a complex interplay of intrinsic factors – primarily the sex of the elephant – and external variables, mainly precipitation, temperature, seasonality and proximity. to human activity.

Individuality, a common trait in many elephants, is also featured.

“Male elephants as a whole tend to roam farther, have larger home ranges, and exhibit more nocturnal activity than females. Females tend to be less inhibited by human proximity. But individually, there can be big differences within each gender, ”says John Poulsen, associate professor of tropical ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

Knowing all of this will help government agencies configure parks and wildlife corridors so that protected lands contain the resources elephants need year round and are large enough to keep them a safe distance from human settlements and infrastructure, Poulsen said.

It will also help forest rangers and environmentalists identify where and when the risk of poaching is greatest so they can mobilize their resources accordingly.

For example, new data shows that during periods of heavy rainfall, elephants tend to wander further than during dry seasons when they must stay near lakes, rivers or other permanent water sources. Armed with this information, rangers may be able to effectively target more of their surveillance on areas around water points during the dry season and expand their geographic focus during the rainy season.

“Gabon’s national parks agency is doing a remarkable job of monitoring these critically endangered animals and keeping them as safe as possible, but the large size and remote nature of the territory they have to cover can deplete them. resources and create openings for poachers. Hopefully our findings will help rangers fill these gaps, ”says Christopher Beirne, postdoctoral research associate at Poulsen’s lab and lead author of the paper in Scientific reports.

Poachers are estimated to have killed more than 80,000 forest elephants in Central Africa since 2001. These killings, combined with deaths precipitated by forest degradation and habitat loss while farming, road building and other human activities encroach more deeply on unprotected parts of elephant range. , reduced the population of the species by 60 to 80%.

This rapid decline is having disastrous consequences not only for the species itself, but also for the forests of the region.

“Without intervention, up to 96% of Central Africa’s forests will undergo major changes in the composition and structure of tree species as local elephant populations disappear and surviving populations are crammed into remains. smaller and smaller forests, ”explains Poulsen.

These changes will happen because elephants are ecological engineers who help create and maintain forest habitat by dispersing seeds, recycling and spreading nutrients, and cleaning understory, he explains.

Environmentalists and wildlife veterinarians from Gabon’s National Parks Agency, its national parks agency, wore a necklace to the 96 elephants tracked in the study.

The co-authors are from the University of Cambridge, the University of Stirling, the Tropical Ecology Research Institute, the National Parks Agency and Duke.

Beirne is now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of British Columbia. The US Fish and Wildlife Service funded the work through a grant to the Gabon National Parks Agency.

Source: duke university

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