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African elephants choose paths leading to their favorite food

As human-elephant conflicts continue to exacerbate across Africa, scientists are searching for new methods to keep track of wild African elephants by using cutting-edge technologies, such as satellite imagery and state-of-the-art GPS systems.

In the rural community of Sagalla in Tsavo, Kenya – a hotspot for crop-raiding elephants – researchers led by the University of Oxford and the Save the Elephants organization have now tracked the footprints of elephants through a high-resolution Garmin GPS combined with state-of-the-art satellite imagery to identify how plant diversity on a micro-scale affects elephant movement.

The investigations revealed that elephants make considered decisions about which paths to take based on their dietary preferences. For instance, bull elephants prefer to walk paths that have or lead to plants such as Combretum and Cissus, which are only eaten by bulls.

On the other hand, family groups will usually walk paths that have Commiphora and Terminalia, which are preferred by females and young calves. Finally, when the two groups move together, they choose paths that have or lead to regions where both preferred foods are available.

Better understanding how elephants access their favorite foods could help conservation managers focus their resources on potential conflict hotspots outside protected areas and safeguard plant diversity within parks and buffer zones. Moreover, clarifying the location and composition of specific vegetation species within plant communities could also help scientists to learn more about the impact of human encroachment and vegetation removal on elephant movement.

“It is incredible the level of detail we can infer from free satellite imagery about the processes that control the spatial dynamics of elephant movements. A lot is known about what kinds of foods are eaten by elephants, however, being able to single out the fact that their movements can be driven by their fancied, gender-based diet, helps to further our understanding of micro-level ecological interactions,” explained study lead author Gloria Mugo, a remote sensing analyst at Save the Elephants.

“The insight that different compositions of elephant groups prefer different vegetation patches could help us better understand where elephants are moving to within community areas to focus mitigation efforts, and also will promote better understanding for management of vegetation quality and composition inside wildlife reserves to keep parks more attractive to elephants inside than outside,” concluded senior author Lucy King, a biologist at Oxford.

The study is published in the journal Remote Sensing.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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