February 23, 2018
The Chobe National Park in northern Botswana is a 11,700 sq km (4,517 sq
mile) sanctuary for animals. Families of endangered African elephants
wander freely through the park, which is bordered by Namibia in the north
and Zimbabwe in the east. The animals visit watering holes, feed on the
lush vegetation, and play with the youngest of their groups.
African elephants in nearby countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia
are migrating to parks like Chobe, where strict anti-poaching policies
allow them to thrive.
Botswana is now home to roughly 130,000 elephants a third of Africa’s
entire elephant population. This is an increase of over 30,000 elephants in
Botswana since 1995 against a backdrop of declining numbers across the
In 2016 the Great Elephant Census published the first-ever continent-wide,
standardized survey of African savannah elephants. The census found that
savannah elephant populations in Africa fell by an estimated 30% or 144,000
animals in total between 2007 and 2014.
Today there are only around 350,000 left on the entire continent. The
survey authors blamed poaching as the primary reason for the decline.
The 2016 survey did not include forest elephants, whose populations are
difficult to discern because they live in dense, forested areas and would
require labor-intensive ground counts to survey. Estimates suggest there
are only 100,000 left today. In total, it’s believed that there were over 1
million elephants in Africa in the 1970s, and possibly more than 2 million
at the beginning of the 20th century.
Botswana, however, has become a safe haven for the world’s largest land
mammals. “Elephants are using well-known migratory routes into Botswana to
flee threats from neighboring countries,” says Mark Hiley, cofounder of the
UK-based nonprofit National Park Rescue. “The systematic movement of
elephants into Botswana is linked to their survival.”
Communicating For Survival
Researchers believe this migration is just one survival mechanism elephants
have developed in response to poaching, conflict, urbanization,
agriculture, and other pressures in Africa.
In 2016, one elephant made a treacherous 209 km (130 mile) journey over
three weeks from the relative safety of Kenya to conflict-ridden Somalia,
all under the cloak of darkness. Morgan, as the researchers called him,
remained in Somalia for just a day and a half before turning back.
“We don’t know the precise reason for his migration into Somalia,” says
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, a UK charity
headquartered in Nairobi that conducts research on elephant behavior and
ecology, ?but we suspect it was to mate.?
“Moving by night was an extreme form of survival in a region where
elephants are under threat from poaching,” adds Douglas-Hamilton. “He was
the first elephant on record to visit in Somalia in 20 years.”
Inspired by the elephant’s journey, researchers at the University of Twente
in the Netherlands worked with Save the Elephants to conduct a study last
September on African elephant migratory patterns. They found that some
elephants in sub-Saharan Africa have started uncharacteristically
travelling at night to avoid the threat of poaching that usually occurs
during the day.
Elephants also have developed sophisticated gestures, sounds, infrasound,
and even chemical secretions to relay messages to one another for survival
purposes. “Through various means, elephants can suggest that the group
moves on, that they sense danger, or that they are in distress,” says
Indeed, it’s not just where elephants are going that’s of interest to
researchers, but when, and how they’re communicating about it within
groups, between herds, and across generations. In 1977, Mozambique gained
independence from Portuguese colonial rule; two years later the country
collapsed into civil war.
By the time the war ended in 1992, over a million people had been killed
and 5 million others had been displaced. During the conflict, soldiers ate
elephant meat and traded the animals? ivory for weapons and ammunition,
says Joyce Poole, cofounder and scientific director of ElephantVoices, an
organization that studies the social behavior and communication of African
Mozambique’s elephant population was completely decimated: 90% of the 4,000
elephants that lived in the greater Gorongosa area in central Mozambique,
where much of Poole’s research has focused, had been killed.
“Twenty-five years later and many elephants in Gorongosa are still scared
of humans,” says Poole. “When family groups of elephants come into contact
with people, older, experienced females typically communicate to their
family that there is a threat and will charge or flee depending on the
situation. Calves and juveniles learn how to react from their mothers.”
Researchers have also found that African elephants can differentiate
between human languages in order to identify potential threats.
For instance, elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, near the
Tanzanian border in the south, have shown the ability to distinguish
between the voices and scents of potentially threatening spear-carrying
Maasai warriors with those of less threatening farming tribes.
To a Deeper Understanding
Research on elephant populations increasingly illustrates the complex ways
they communicate and, consequently, their intelligence. But we have only
scratched the surface. Although researchers have identified a number of
general alarm calls used by elephants, they haven’t distinguished calls or
gestures that specifically warn of poaching.
The type of work required to figure out the nuances of elephant
communication would force researchers to get extremely close to the
elephants, Douglas-Hamilton says, which could put the humans at risk.
Studying elephants in general poses a number of other challenges. Habitat,
past interaction with humans, and even differences in elephants?
personalities all affect the way research can be carried out.
Poole describes working in Amboseli, Kenya, “within a few meters of calm
elephants, which offered great visibility and good quality recordings and a
deep understanding of how elephants behave,” she says. “In Gorongosa,
Mozambique, the habitat is thick and the elephants can be both fearful of
people and aggressive toward them, which makes studying them there much
Researchers want to maintain harmony between the elephants and human
communities living near them, to create a ready environment to study the
?Issues with crop raiding and poaching for example mean that people near
elephant populations can get very frustrated with proximity with the
animals,? explains Lucy Bates, a research fellow in the school of
Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK, who has spent a number of years
studying African elephants. “This can in turn create political issues for
the researchers and block important studies.”
Elephant researchers and advocates hope that as technology and our
understanding of these pachyderms develops, challenges will dissipate. “As
time goes on and scientists gain access to more sophisticated technology,
we are likely to find that the calls elephants produce hold very specific
meanings,” says Poole.
“Humans have represented a primary threat to elephants for many thousands
of years. I feel certain that elephants have a specific call to refer to
our species?and likely several different calls to communicate to one
another whether the specific humans represent a threat or not.”
In the meantime, current observations still offer incredible insight: In
times of heavy poaching, elephants appear to gravitate towards safe havens
and hunker down. And even after the threat is gone, it can still take a
generation or two for elephants to relax and move beyond the boundaries of
these safe spaces.
This news service is provided by Save the Elephants.