Getting Inside an Elephant’s Head
In addition to being smaller, forest elephants are darker and their tusks are straighter and point downward. There are also differences in the size and shape of the skull and skeleton between the two subspecies. Forest elephants, a distinct subspecies of African elephants, are uniquely adapted to the forest habitat of the Congo Basin, but are in sharp decline due to poaching for the international ivory trade. It is estimated that probably one quarter to one third of the total African elephant population is made up of forest elephants.
The presence of African elephants helps to maintain suitable habitats for many other species. In central African forests, up to 30 percent of tree species may require elephants to help with dispersal and germination. They play a pivotal role in shaping their habitat because of the enormous impact they have on factors ranging from fresh water to forest cover. Numbering three to five million in the last century, African elephant populations were severely reduced to its current levels because of hunting. In recent years, growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia, has led to a surge in poaching.
Populations of elephants—especially in southern and eastern Africa—that once showed promising signs of recovery could be at risk due to the recent surge in poaching for the illegal ivory trade. The illegal demand for ivory is the biggest driver of elephant poaching. Despite a global CITES ban on international sales of ivory since , tens of thousands of elephants are killed to meet a growing demand for ivory products in the Far East. Asia stands behind a steadily increasing trend in illegal ivory and there are still thriving domestic ivory markets in Africa.
Limited resources combined with remote and inaccessible elephant habitats make it difficult for governments to monitor and protect elephant herds.
The impacts of war and over-exploitation of natural resources often lead to increased poaching as elephants are also regarded as source of wild meat. African elephants have less room to roam than ever before as expanding human populations convert land for agriculture, settlements and developments.
Commercial logging, plantations for biofuels and extractive industries like logging and mining not only destroy habitat but also open access to remote elephant forests for poachers. Poverty, armed conflict and the displacement of people by civil conflict also add to habitat loss and fragmentation. As habitats contract and human populations expand, people and elephants are increasingly coming into contact with each other. Where farms border elephant habitat or cross elephant migration corridors, damage to crops and villages can become commonplace.
This often leads to conflicts that elephants invariably lose. But loss of life can occur on both sides, as people may be trampled while trying to protect their livelihoods, and game guards often shoot "problem" elephants. Building on 50 years of experience, WWF addresses illegal hunting for meat and ivory, habitat loss, and human-elephant conflict to protect African elephant populations.
To reduce the illegal trade in elephant products, WWF supports antipoaching efforts within and around protected areas. We also work to establish new protected areas to provide safe havens for elephants. To reduce the illegal killing of elephants through improved protection and management, WWF equips and trains law enforcement teams so they can conduct regular and effective antipoaching patrols. We help establish new protected areas within elephant ranges and improve management effectiveness within existing protected areas. We facilitate training in elephant conservation and management techniques and help update and enforce legislation to protect elephants.
WWF has helped train park guards, villagers and communities in elephant conservation and management.
In Quirimbas National Park, Mozambique, WWF worked with the local government and community to establish a park management system that would protect wildlife and livelihoods. WWF also develops and supports community-based wildlife management plans that contribute to elephant conservation while providing benefits to local people. To increase public support for elephant conservation by reducing conflict, WWF trains wildlife managers and local communities to use modern methods and tools to mitigate human-elephant conflict. In places like the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, WWF monitors interactions between humans and elephants and works with local communities to develop sustainable practices of mitigating conflict with elephants.
Help the men and women on the front lines of conservation. Make a symbolic animal adoption to help save some of the world's most endangered animals from extinction and support WWF's conservation efforts. World Wildlife Fund 24th Street, N.
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In a physiological context, the pressures on humans and elephants to acquire resources, support the energetic requirements of large bodies and brains over a long life and provisioning offspring means that the resource requirements of both species are high Shannon et al. Long-term research on the complex ecology and life histories of individually identified elephants shows that they exhibit individual-level variation, for example, in responses to changing environmental conditions such as adjusting growth and reproduction in response to droughts Lee et al.
These patterns of variation can inform us about both the elephants' effect on the landscape in relation to humans Cook et al. Research using individual observations on elephant social intelligence and the complexity of their social relationships e. Information about how individuals and groups navigate their physical and social environments has direct implications for our understanding of what causes, and what can mitigate conflict Chartier et al. One interesting and problematic commonality across many current human—elephant conflict mitigation techniques is their foundation in fear conditioning.
This usually includes, for example, the use of negative stimuli such as electric fencing and hand-held firecrackers to force elephants away from crops Figure 1. Table 1 shows the range of mitigation measures employed, with a majority of the strategies largely focused on the use of a negative stimulus. Most strategies use barrier methods, which have been developed to prevent elephants from accessing crops or areas used by humans.
Even softer measures such as coating fences in chili peppers Osborn and Parker, ; Le Bel et al. These strategies, although potentially effective when consistently implemented and maintained long-term, may be incomplete in their incorporation of what we know and what we still need to learn about individual variation and behavior in elephants. The other significant issue is that all strategies need to take the space, landscape and resource needs of both humans and elephants into account Goswami and Vasudev, ; when the needs of the latter are neglected, the mitigation plans are prematurely set up to fail.
Figure 1. Teenage male elephant stepping over non-live electric fence in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Regular maintenance of mitigation methods like electric fences is crucial with elephants, as they learn quickly about the lack of consequences when the fences are inactive. Photograph published with permission from the Zoological Society of London. Table 1. Methods of human—elephant conflict mitigation currently employed in Asia and Africa.
In Sri Lanka, for example, pilot programs in which citrus crops are grown that are a unappealing to elephants and therefore do not encourage elephants to raid and b do not rely on fear-based conditioning to keep the elephants away have been successful Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, In addition to this strategy being feasible at the scale of individual farms, the fruits can be sold for a profit and the rice crops can be grown behind the barrier of citrus trees.
African Elephant Library
Although promising, this mitigation strategy, like most others, relies on the assumption that the primary reason for elephant crop-raiding is access to food; potentially, this is only a secondary by-product of the elephants' migration needs, limited space available in protected areas, the demography of the population and dispersal patterns of male elephants, or some other variable that has not yet been identified Jackson et al.
This is yet another reason why the collection of baseline behavioral and demographic data for the elephant populations in a given area is essential, as is the need to collect land usage data on individual elephant groups across diverse landscapes. Progress is also being made regarding the use of elephant communication to better inform humans about the presence of elephants and to provide early warnings in areas of human—elephant conflict for example, by detecting their infrasonic rumbles— Zeppelzauer and Stoeger, The strategies involving negative stimuli largely require elephants to balance the negative experience of the mitigation strategy against potential gains of the conflict activity and only remain effective if the elephants continue to avoid an ever-present negative stimulus.
In addition, these monitoring methods and mitigation strategies do not aim to directly alter or impact elephant behavior in a positive way, but only focus on physical, acoustic or olfactory barriers between elephants, humans and their habitats. In order to better provide mitigation solutions, we must take into account both human and animal motivations for engaging in potentially risky conflict-causing activities. For example, evidence suggests that elephants that consume agricultural crops are not only accessing calorie-dense food sources, but that they also grow larger than their non-raiding conspecifics Chiyo et al.
This means that their behavior may be linked to fitness benefits, as dominance and access to mates is linked to body size Sukumar and Gadgil, ; Chiyo et al. On the human side, farmers have to balance costs of investing in mitigation measures against the value of compensation Jackson et al.
The balancing act maintained by both elephants and humans cannot be seen as static, but in flux because of variation including seasonal availability of resources, social factors and mortality.
Any inputs into the system, such as providing farmers with new mitigation tools or compensation could influence this balance in different ways, including stimulating further conversion of land to agricultural use Bulte and Rondeau, This suggests that each HEC landscape, even within the same country or region, must be assessed as a unique case with a unique set of confounds and needs for both the individual elephants and the humans involved. Here, we suggest a holistic approach that focuses on both human and elephant factors.
In areas where no mitigation strategy has yet been employed, a careful evaluation of human and elephant behavior and culture should be conducted first, hence the need for collaboration across disciplines in biology, psychology, anthropology and ecology at this level. For instance, both the social dynamics and landscape use of the humans and the elephants must be considered in HEC mitigation Hoare, ; thus, effective strategies would require different types of academic and local community-level expertise. First, at the level of the community, villages with stable community leaders and good relations between local members may find success with mitigation strategies that require collaboration over large distances e.
In communities with significant social strife or a lack of cooperation between individuals, attempts at resolving within-group disagreements should be made first to ensure the viability of any HEC mitigation strategy that requires long-term, cooperative investment from all stakeholders. If a mitigation strategy has already been employed and works in a particular site, the strategy's long-term potential requires that it be applied consistently for instance, by encouraging community members to be responsible for the upkeep of the specific sections of the electric fence that traverse their land— Chartier et al.
Focusing on consistency in the implementation and maintenance of specific mitigation strategies encourages cooperation among local people but also sends a consistent message to the elephants in their environment. This awareness within human communities, the use of local knowledge and strong local collaborations are vital to the success of interventions or mitigation techniques. The human dynamic is only one piece, of course; there is a crucial need for a more comprehensive, ecological and psychological understanding of the elephants' behavior and its environmental context.
The most important questions we should ask center on why the elephants are coming into conflict with humans, and whether there are individual differences between elephants within and across populations that make them more or less likely to engage in such conflict. We propose to address these questions using two complementary areas of research: the study of elephant behavior and cognition, and the study of elephant ecology and life history.
Studies conducted both in Africa and Asia, with both captive and wild populations, show clear evidence for individual differences in a number of ecological and cognitive categories, including parasite load Lynsdale et al. Identifying whether or not specific behavioral, physical, demographic or personality traits collected through future ecological, ethological and experimental research on captive and wild elephants correlate with an elephant's propensity to crop-raid or engage in conflict may have important implications for preventing or managing these conflicts across different landscapes.
Our growing knowledge about the complexity of elephant cognition and the variability in life history traits suggests that there are most likely substantial differences across populations and between individuals in their propensity for risk taking Hoare, For example, from the cognitive perspective, while in-conflict elephant groups in which the leader or other adults are risk averse, fearful of humans or neophobic may only require simple mitigation approaches, areas with risk prone, innovative, curious, or destructive elephant groups may require a more aggressive mitigation strategy to curb conflict.
Equally as relevant, these behavioral traits might be linked to life history characteristics such as age, sex, reproductive state or other demographic or ecological traits. Thus, our aim is to gain a comprehensive picture of the individuals in the study area as well as the leadership structure within these groups McComb et al. In future research, scientists could collect both demographic and trait-based data at the individual level.
These data would not be focused simply on the animal's life history stage or sex alone—such as when dispersing adolescent males show a propensity to crop forage or raid Sukumar and Gadgil, ; Rode et al. Such research would complement data gathered from ethological direct, systematic field observations of elephants close to or within crop-raiding zones and experimental research designs.
In the latter, basic cognitive tasks set up in areas frequented by wild elephant groups could help identify individual differences across elephants in confidence, innovation, risk-propensity, leadership and neophobia. Together, this work could be used to develop demographic, physical and personality profiles for individual elephants and groups, which could then be used to inform the implementation of area, group- or elephant-specific strategies to prevent conflict. If the reasons for differences in the type and level of conflict within and across range countries is not purely due to landscape and habitat differences, but instead has demographic, behavioral or personality-level implications, then focusing on influencing the elephants' decision-making process may be a novel approach to mitigating the conflicts across countries.
For instance, by focusing on how elephants find food—for example, through research on their use of olfaction in both physical Plotnik et al. In addition, instead of using particular strategies haphazardly to see what works in a given landscape, researchers could apply research on specific elephant groups and individual group leaders to the selection and identification of mitigation strategies that work best with particular types of elephants.
We also hope that, in the future, research on individual differences in elephants and other species can be used to influence the animal's decision-making process using techniques such as taste aversion or positive reinforcement conditioning so that instead of forcing animals away from resources they desire or need, the animals make decisions on their own to avoid them.
This would inevitably promote coexistence rather than conflict. Thus, in the case of the elephant, the complement of data on individual differences in life history, cognition and personality would allow conservationists to take the elephants' perspective to both look at the influences of particular traits on conflict as well as to potentially predict it before it occurs. To be successful, however, this would require a comprehensive approach to wildlife management that accounted for the animals' needs so that alternative sources of food and water were available for animals away from human habitation.
The feasibility of such an approach is problematic given that one of the reasons for increasing habitat fragmentation and encroachment is a decrease in natural resource availability for humans Songer et al. Nonetheless, we believe scientific research into behavior, ecology and cognition has great promise for helping develop new strategies to prevent conflict between humans and wildlife. When politicians, community leaders and conservationists alike recognize both our growing understanding of the individuality within animal species and the need to take both human- and wildlife-perspectives in conservation practice, current approaches to mitigating conflict will evolve away from short-term stop gap measures that temporarily avoid conflict and toward long-term solutions that effectively prevent it.
Both authors conceived, designed and wrote this work, and approved it for publication. She thanks the Fischbeck Foundation for additional workshop funding.
JP is the founder and executive director of Think Elephants International, a US public charity that focuses on elephant conservation. The remaining author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. We thank Frans de Waal and Nick Davies for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript, and Dalia Miller for assistance with researching the literature.
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