Africa’s elephants embark on risky crop raids

Elephants roaming the parched plains of Africa’s national parks can get up to half their food by risky midnight raids into crop fields, according to scientists who tracked a herd by satellite monitoring in Kenya’s Samburu national reserve. It is a problem that also occurs in South Africa.

Conservationists working for Save the Elephants Foundation in Kenya hope that by understanding the elephants’ behaviour, they can improve ways of protecting farmers against damage caused by the animals, and in turn protect the elephants from angered farmers.

”When an elephant raids a crop field, it can be devastating for a farmer,” said Henrik Rasmussen, a conservationist at Oxford University who took part in the study. ”Sometimes the elephants are spotted and shot in the act.”

Tension between the local population and elephants has worsened in recent years as small-scale farmers have encroached on the parkland to grow crops.

Raymond Travers, spokesperson for the Kruger National Park in South Africa, told the Mail & Guardian Online that elephants escape from the park regularly.

”It does happen, at any boundary that the park has. It is increasing at the moment now that the elephant population is growing. They [elephants] can break the fence themselves and robbers steal parts of the fence for their own use, and there probably are tons of other ways [how elephants break out].”

Travers said he has some statistics on how often elephants escape and raid crop fields, but he needs some time to get them straight.

”I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I can say it happens regularly,” he said.

Michele Pickover, from Xwe African Wildlife and Elephants Alive, which represents more than 100 wildlife groups in South Africa, said no research has been conducted about this aspect of human-elephant conflict.

”There is no overall picture; neither are there projects or programmes running. We do have some stats about Mpumalanga: it’s about twentysomething elephants that get shot a year outside a park. I don’t want to give you those stats because they don’t say much; it needs the circumstances.

”Elephants do get shot when they find their way out of a park. Farmers take out their gun and just shoot at them. SANParks [South African National Parks] will give this as a reason for culling elephants. While they have no information, they are using this as an excuse. We all need to come up with a solution for the human-elephant conflict in South Africa.”

Pickover said there is a different kind of interaction between animals and people in other African countries like Kenya because their parks do not have fencing.

”The fence is technically not our responsibility,” said the Kruger National Park’s Travers. ”Actually, the east fence is, but west falls under the [national] agricultural department.

”At the international border on the east, we try to educate the people in Mozambique not to steal parts of the fence. Legally speaking, a wild animal that crosses the border is the other province’s conservation agency’s concern. So, on the south border of the park that will be the Mpumalanga Parks Board.”

The scientists in Kenya tracked a herd of seven elephants by fitting them with satellite tags as they wandered through the Samburu national reserve.

By combining information on the elephants’ movements with chemical tests on hairs plucked from their tails, the researchers recreated the elephants’ routes and also worked out what they ate along the way. Elephant hairs grow about 0,5mm a day and ratios of chemicals in the hairs vary depending on the type of food the elephant is eating at the time.

The tail hair of six of the elephants indicated that they spent most of their time in the arid lowlands of Samburu eating trees and shrubs. During the rainy season, they switched to grasses.

The seventh elephant, named Lewis, was different. He spent rainy seasons in lowland Samburu, but then trekked 40km to the Imenti Forest, 1 950m above sea level on Mount Kenya. From there, he made repeated night-time raids into subsistence farms during the dry period from mid-June to mid-August. Tests on tail hairs suggest that between a third and a half of Lewis’s food intake was corn from the farmland, according to the report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published on Monday.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, president of the foundation and the study’s lead author, said crop raids are extremely dangerous.

”It is a high-risk, high-gain strategy, and in our elephant’s case it did not pay off. Shortly after the research was done, Lewis suffered multiple gunshots, very likely as a result of crop raiding.”

Rasmussen added: ”Knowing when the raids are most likely to happen, we can work out the best ways to deter the elephants, when fences or other measures are going to be most needed.”

SANParks has not yet responded to questions from the M&G Online about elephants raiding crop fields in South Africa and the developments around their proposed culling.

Conservationists at WWF South Africa, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Ethical Conservation Network were not available for comments on the matter.

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Elvira Van Noort
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