More Elephants are at Risk of Conflict with Humans than Previously Thought

Solving the mysteries around human-elephant conflict using tracking data from collared elephants may help provide long-term solutions to this ever-growing issue. As the human population grows, space for people and wildlife diminishes often throwing them into a battle for the same resources. The payoff for an elephant is a field full of ripe high calorie food, but the risks are great; farmers armed with arrows and spears trying to divert a pest out of their livelihood and food source. There is a limited understanding of the complexity of crop raiding behavior because of the difficulty in obtaining detailed movement data from elephants that actively crop raid. Answering the “why” about crop raiding in elephants varies based on individuals, seasons, opportunity and more.

In the latest paper co-authored by Mara Elephant Project Director of Research and Conservation Dr. Jake Wall, “Risk perception and tolerance shape variation in agricultural use for a transboundary elephant population”, it was discovered that elephants are balancing the costs and benefits of crop raiding both spontaneously and seasonally. The study by Colorado State University (CSU), Mara Elephant Project (MEP), Grumeti Fund, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and Save the Elephants (STE) was published this week in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Using tracking data from 66 KWS and TAWIRI collared elephants in the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem, the study highlights the complexity of crop raiding behavior in elephants as there is a limited pattern to whether they crop raid spontaneously when the opportunity presents itself or are crop raiding seasonally year-to-year. Based on the 66 elephants studied, only two maintained habitual crop raiding levels over multiple seasons, while most used agriculture sporadically when presented with the opportunity. Overall, 80% of the population used agriculture at least sporadically, and patterns of conflict were complex in that elephants frequently changed their agriculture use between years.

“It turns out crop-raiding is a lot more prevalent in the study populations than we knew previously,” he said. “In addition, patterns of conflict are complex because we saw that individuals frequently changed their agricultural use between years.”

Doctoral Student in Ecology at CSU and Lead Author Nathan Hahn

This makes a management plan for conflict difficult to produce and nuanced based on where the population of elephants reside. The findings suggest that a larger percentage of the elephant population is at risk of conflict and past behavior doesn’t necessarily predict future behavior so mitigation solutions that are easily scalable within the local communities are more effective to deter the passing elephant.

“By using GPS tracking, coupled with remotely sensed agricultural spatial information, we now have a method for characterizing crop-raiding behavior within a given elephant population. This in turn should help improve elephant crop-raiding mitigation strategies by wildlife managers.”

Dr. Jake Wall

While MEP focuses on reacting to conflict by deploying rangers, drones and the leased helicopter, it only works in the short term to remove the elephant and keep peace within the community. What this study tells us is that MEP must remain adaptive to find a long-term solution to this coexistence problem. We are currently exploring a recently launched experimental farm to find unpalatable crops for elephants that can be a good alternative for the community. Co-author Dr. George Wittemyer, an associate professor at CSU said it best.

“This variation underpins the difficulty in solution oriented human-elephant coexistence measures – as we often find, a silver bullet is elusive for a species as complex and clever as elephants. We must be adaptive as they are when trying to solve these problems.”

Dr. George Wittemyer

MEP is committed to remaining adaptive to ensure the protection of elephants and their habitats in the Greater Mara Ecosystem.