African Elephants Pushed To The Fringe By Humans
African elephants are remarkably adaptable. They can thrive in different biomes across Africa, but their ranges are far smaller than they once were. The same habitats that elephants lived in 2,000 years ago are still suitable for them today – so what has changed over that time to alter the paths of elephants? The answer: human activity.
Between 1998-2013, the authors of this study used satellite imagery and GPS tracking to follow the ranging patterns of 229 elephants across the African continent. Researchers collected data at 19 sites in four biomes: Sahel (west); forest (central); savannah (east); and bushveld (south). Species, sex, and site variations were tracked as variables that influence elephant ranging patterns. For example, elephants range more broadly when food and water are more available during the rainy season. Female and male elephants also typically forage and travel differently. But sex, species, and location were not the most influential forces on elephants’ ranges – these factors only began to affect movements within boundaries determined by human activity.
The authors created a Habitat Suitability Model (HSM) to determine how much of the continent is habitable by elephants, compared to how much of that land the elephants actually occupy today. The answer, according to the HSM and tracking data, is that elephants are confined to a fraction of the land they could inhabit. 62% of the African landmass is habitable for elephants, but elephant ranging patterns cover a mere 17.2% of that total. Plus, the majority of habitable land (85%) lies outside of designated protected areas.
These results show that elephant ranges are not limited because of habitat incompatibility. Instead, their ranges are limited by human activity and elephant/human conflict. According to the article, between 50-70% of wildlife around the world is disturbed by humans. Plus, the human footprint is expected to double by 2050. With a long history of exploitation and a growing human population, how do elephants stand a chance?
The authors focus on two solutions: expanding protected areas, and reducing conflict between humans and elephants.
First, the study results show that elephants need more protected land to live within. Elephants choose protected areas because they are safer, less disturbed, and often provide better access to water and vegetation. But because there isn’t enough protected land for them, 57% of individual elephant ranges fall outside of protected areas.
Elephants could have much wider ranging patterns, if humans allocate the space for them. Currently, about 85% of habitable land lies outside of protected areas. It is essential that we expand these boundaries if we are going to continue encroaching on their habitats and forcing them into protected areas.
Second, the authors argue that it isn’t enough to designate more protected land. People need to coexist with elephants outside of those boundaries. There are major problems to tackle: killing for ivory; logging; agriculture and pastoralism; and charcoal extraction, to name a few. These invasive practices don’t just destroy habitats – human pressures can fundamentally change elephant behavior. For example, both forest and savannah elephants become more nocturnal because of poaching.
If we look at history, we can see what the fate of African elephants may be if nothing changes. As far back as the 1st century AD, there is evidence that elephants were either wiped out or fled their home in North Africa because of the ivory trade. Again, after Europeans colonized Southern Africa in the 17th century, ivory hunting nearly extinguished elephants from the southern tip of the continent to the Zambezi River. This brings us to where we are today. Will history repeat again?
Through advocacy for structural change on all levels of society, there is hope for a future where elephants regain some safety and security. It will require an ethic of coexistence, regulations on harmful practices that fragment elephant habitats, and a shift in socioeconomic development. We can advocate for strategies like proactive landscape planning with the goal of lessening the impact of human society on wildlife. An important part of that is giving elephants more protected land, but creating more low-human-impact areas outside of those designated zones is also necessary for reducing conflict and giving elephants their freedom.