Pack­ing a Trunk

Ele­phants in East Africa are on the move to es­cape the great­est threat to their ex­is­tence

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY SOFIA LOTTO PERSIO @sofi­aellepi

HU­MANS HAVE LONG BEEN AWARE OF THE

dan­ger posed by poach­ers. A study pub­lished in the peer-re­viewed Eco­log­i­cal In­di­ca­tors jour­nal in Septem­ber sug­gests that ele­phants are too, and they’ve be­gun mov­ing at night, tak­ing ad­van­tage of dark­ness to avoid them.

The re­search, car­ried out by the Kenya-based char­ity Save the Ele­phants and the Univer­sity of Twente in part­ner­ship with the Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice, used GPS track­ing and mor­tal­ity data col­lected in north­ern Kenya be­tween 2002 and 2012. The data helped cal­cu­late a “night-day speed ra­tio”—the amount of time spent mov­ing dur­ing each of these pe­ri­ods—of ele­phants in re­la­tion to lev­els of poach­ing in the nearby ar­eas. When poach­ing threats were great­est, both male and fe­male ele­phants trav­eled and ate more at night than dur­ing the day. These ac­tiv­i­ties make them vis­i­ble to hunters; un­der the cover of night, that threat is greatly re­duced.

Although the adap­ta­tion could be sav­ing their lives, Save the Ele­phants founder Iain Dou­glas-hamil­ton says, “This al­ter­ation in move­ment be­hav­ior has im­pli­ca­tions for their for­ag­ing strat­egy, re­pro­duc­tion and sur­vival, which are not yet fully un­der­stood.” Although ele­phants can see in dim light, baby ele­phants may lose their moth­ers in dark­ness. And search­ing for food at night could also leave ele­phants vul­ner­a­ble to at­tacks by li­ons and other preda­tors that hunt in the dark. Ele­phants’ lack of move­ment at night nor­mally keeps them hid­den from these nat­u­ral threats.

These find­ings con­firm and ex­pand on pre­vi­ous re­search on ele­phant be­hav­ior, such as a study pub­lished in March find­ing that African ele­phants in the wild sleep much less than ele­phants in cap­tiv­ity and spend much of their time flee­ing poach­ers when that dan­ger is present.

Ian Red­mond, a con­sul­tant who fo­cuses on ele­phants for the Bri­tish an­i­mal rights or­ga­ni­za­tion Born Free Foun­da­tion, calls the use of GPS mon­i­tor­ing in this study “a stroke of ge­nius.” Track­ing when ele­phants move with this tech­nol­ogy could pro­vide clues about poach­ing lev­els on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. That in­for­ma­tion can be used to alert anti-poach­ing pa­trols in time to stop killings: When the GPS in­di­cates night­time move­ment, re­searchers will know that poach­ers are in the area. “It truly has po­ten­tial to save ele­phants’ lives,” Red­mond says.

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