University of Kent

Olivia Miller5 February 2021Environment

A new study led by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) has found that elephants living around the world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, are crop-raiding closer to the protected area, more frequently and throughout the year but are causing less damage when doing so.

Findings show that the direct economic impact of this crop-raiding in the Trans Mara region has dropped, yet farmers have to spend more time protecting their fields, further reducing support for conservation in communities who currently receive few benefits from living with wildlife.

The research published by Biological Conservation demonstrates the effects that climate change, agricultural expansion and increased cattle grazing within the reserve have had on elephant crop-raiding trends in the region.

The team of conservationists, led by Professor Bob Smith and DICE alumna Dr Lydia Tiller (Research and Science Manager, Save the Elephants), investigated the seasonal, temporal and spatial trends of elephant crop-raiding in the Trans Mara, Kenya during 2014–2015, comparing results to a previous DICE study from 1999 to 2000.

The number of crop-raiding incidents increased by 49% over the 15 years, but crop damage per incident dropped by 83%. This could be because farmers are better prepared to frighten off elephants. It could also be because landcover change makes it harder for elephants to hide in forest patches, and this spread of farmland and loss of forest to illegal charcoal clearing means that more of the crop-raiding incidents are taking place closer to the protected area.

Professor Smith said: ‘Landcover change has had a major impact on where human-elephant conflict takes place. Better land-use planning and support for farmers would help reduce crop-raiding as well as people’s tolerance of elephants.’

Dr Tiller said: ‘The change in crop-raiding trends going from being highly seasonal during 1999–2000 when maize crops are ripe, to year-round during 2014–2015, is yet another demonstration of how climate change is affecting nature. With less natural vegetation available for elephants to eat in the Masai Mara, this is not surprising. Restoring elephants’ feeding habitat in the park is vital to reducing human-elephant conflict in the area.’

Their research paper ‘Changing seasonal, temporal and spatial crop-raiding trends over 15 years in a human-elephant conflict hotspot’ is published by Biological Conservation

Abstract:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000632072030999X?via=ihub

Human-wildlife conflict is increasing due to rapid natural vegetation loss and fragmentation. We investigated seasonal, temporal and spatial trends of elephant crop-raiding in the Trans Mara, Kenya during 2014–2015 and compared our results with a previous study from 1999 to 2000. Our results show extensive changes in crop-raiding patterns. There was a 49% increase in incidents between 1999 -2000 and 2014–2015 but an 83% decline in the amount of damage per farm. Crop-raiding went from highly seasonal during 1999–2000 to year-round during 2014–2015, with crops being damaged at all growth stages. Additionally, we identified a new elephant group type involved in crop-raiding, comprising of mixed groups. Spatial patterns of crop-raiding also changed, with more incidents during 2014–2015 neighbouring the protected area, especially by bull groups. Crop-raiding intensity during 2014–15 increased with farmland area until a threshold of 0.4 km2 within a 1 km2 grid square, and farms within 1 km from the forest boundary, <5 km from the protected area boundary and >2 km from village centres were most at risk of crop-raiding. In the last 20 years the Mara Ecosystem has been impacted by climate change, agricultural expansion and increased cattle grazing within protected areas. Elephants seem to have responded by crop-raiding closer to refuges, more frequently and throughout the year but cause less damage overall. While this means the direct economic impact has dropped, more farmers must spend more time protecting their fields, further reducing support for conservation in communities who currently receive few benefits from living with wildlife.