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Scientists turn to elephant trails for a new approach to conservation

The complex networks of trails cleared by elephant tracks are important routes used by locals, tourists, scientists, and loggers to traverse the forest. Researchers at Purdue University are describing how drawing attention to the significance of these trails may lead to the development of more effective conservation approaches to protect African elephants.

“Think of elephants as engineers of the forests,” said study co-author Professor Melissa J. Remis. “Elephants shape the landscape in many ways that benefit humans. We’re talking thousands of miles of trails. If we think about the loss of elephants over time, then we will see the forest structure change and human activities also would shift.”

Elephants trample over thick vegetation across dense forests in the Central African Republic’s Congo Basin as they move from their foraging areas to open water sources where they hydrate, bathe, and socialize. If elephants start to disappear, the forest will grow over the trails, explained the researchers.

“The fabric and way of life of local communities, and even for the industries and conservation organizations that exist in African forests, have largely been shaped by elephant landscape design,” said study co-author Carolyn A. Jost Robinson. “People rely on these elephant highways, and they also are invaluable at understanding and explaining the networks.”

The experts are investigating how the effects of conservation affect humans, and what role biological anthropology can play. 

“Anthropologists are very famous for critiquing conservation but not always for coming up with effective solutions,” said Professor Remis. “The area of conservation is dominated by biological sciences, and you can’t make change just tending to ecosystems. Conservation messages focus on flagship species, like elephants, and rarely do they consider the knowledge or needs of people relying on or living with those species. Attention on both could help further conservation and human rights issues.”

In particular, the research is focused on elephant trails leading to Dzanga Saline, a famous forest clearing with a large water source in the Congo area. The first time Professor Remis visited this region was for the purpose of studying gorillas. During her fieldwork, she learned that to gain a better understanding of the gorillas, you must also learn about the forest and other wildlife from the local residents who share the land with them.

“We’re broadening the conversation about conservation,” said Robinson. “When you see a picture in a magazine story about ivory trafficking and elephant hunting, it is unlikely that the article will capture the entire experience of the community, as well as tourists, researchers and companies with local interests. As part of this change – whether you want to talk about climate change, forest access or wildlife protection – these relationships have evolved and taken on new shapes. We looked back on years of data and stories and realized there was a story to tell.”

By consulting with the local BaAka community, the scientists can collect relevant information about interacting and living with elephants that will better inform conservation strategies.

“We want this to be a model for showing how to get additional insights when addressing how to conserve forests in better collaboration with those people who rely on them for cultural and material sustenance,” said Professor Remis. 

“Being able to tell their stories and share their deep knowledge about the area, and what closing off an elephant trail or part of the forest can due to cut off access to food, medicines or social networks, is usually not part of the conservation approach. We need to hear the BaAka in their own words.”

The study is published in the journal American Anthropologist.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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