elephant conservation

  • Elephant Partners - Maasai Mara

    In early 2011, ElephantVoices launched "Elephant Partners", an elephant conservation project in the Maasai Mara ecosystem. The goal of Elephant Partners is to develop a working model for citizens to monitor and protect elephants. This initiative was made possible through support from the generous organisations and inviduals listed at the bottom of this page.

    The concept is to connect individual people - guides, scouts, researchers, photographers, tourists, people of the Maasai Mara and all those who care - with the lives of individual elephants. Through use of the Internet and social and educational media, our intention is to develop a community sharing knowledge of the Mara elephants and working together to protect them.

    Elephants are important for the survival of the Mara

    As an iconic landscape species elephants are important to the survival of the Mara. They play a key role in the ecosystem and, through tourism, in the local economy. Their great size, sociality, intelligence and charisma make them important Ambassadors for other threatened species. Yet, the Mara elephants are currently threatened by habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and ivory poaching. Many elephants are killed each year and an even greater number are wounded by spears, arrows and snares. By engaging people in the monitoring and protection of elephants, we hope to engender enthusiasm for the collective custodianship necessary to protect elephants and the ecosystem.

    The data collected include group size, location and composition and will determine the habitat use and migration routes used by individual elephants. These data will help wildlife managers protect elephants and to determine the corridors vital to their survival. Elephant Partners will make these and other baseline data available to the public. Furthermore, the project will help focus attention on the newly formed conservancies and bolster their important work; the future of elephants and other landscape species depends upon their commercial success.

    Follow and support the Mara elephants

    One of the main components of this initiative is a fully searchable online database for storing information, photographs and identifying features of each elephant - the Mara Elephant Who's Who - so that we can get to know them as individuals. This database is populated by ElephantVoices, with photo contributions from those of you residing in or visiting the Maasai Mara. You will find an article about The Mara Elephant Who's Who and how to identify elephants published on National Geographic's A Voice for Elephants 16 August 2013, with photos and educational video.

    Via the online interface of a second Mara Elephant Whereabouts database people can upload their own observations, photos and comments on the Mara elephants (their behavior, movements, interactions, conflicts, threats, etc.). This database is related to an advanced mapping functionality showing selected location data. You have to be a registered user to access the above databases - they are both password-protected.

    Furthermore, in November 2011 we launched the Mara EleApp, which has later been updated. This app, for Android-based phones, provides an efficient way for people to collect and upload observations directly to the above mentioned Observations database.

    To achieve its vision Elephant Partners must serve and belong to everyone: The many conservancies (Mara Triangle, Mara North, Lemek, Ol Chorro Oiroua, Enonkishu, Motorogi, Olare Orok, Mara Naboisho, Ol Kinyei, Olderikesi, see map), Kenya Wildlife Service, Maasai Mara National Reserve, members of the local community, the tourism sector and members of the general public. Kenya Wildlife Service, the Mara Elephant Project and the Koiyaki Guiding School are just a few of many important collaborators in this initiative.

    The below video is from a presentation of the Elephant Partners initiative by ElephantVoices' Joyce Poole,
    at National Geographic' Explorers Symposium in June 2012.
    Thank you!
    We are grateful to the organizations and individuals below for making this project possible.
    You will find a full overview over monetary and in-kind supporters, and other contributors and collaborators, on the Acknowledgements page.

  • The Gorongosa Elephants

    The behavior of the Gorongosa elephants is strongly influenced by their fear of people, which was shaped by their experiences during Mozambique's civil conflict. Apprehension also has an impact on their use of habitat. The Gorongosa elephants are careful to avoid open areas during daylight, and they tend not to visit places where they feel vulnerable until nightfall. They avoid coming out of the forest onto the Urema floodplain until very late afternoon, and move rapidly away from vehicles if caught in the open. Provocadora and family members in dense Gorongosa habitat. ©ElephantVoices.In populations where elephants feel safe, they prefer to visit rivers and waterholes during the heat of the day. But, the images coming in from our motion triggered cameras show us that Gorongosa's elephants almost never come to the Pungue River during daylight and, even at night, they approach the river bank with caution. They sniff around and listen before descending the bank; and easily become frightened, running back up and into the forest, with their tails in the air. 

    The irony is that, relative to other populations, elephants are safe in Gorongosa. The trouble is that due to their long-term memories and cultural transmission of behavior, they don't yet feel safe. Our vision is a Gorongosa National Park in which elephants are secure and feel secure, and in which elephants and surrounding human communities co-exist in harmony.

    Gorongosa is an elephant's Eden

    Isabella nursing two calves, one of whom is not hers. ©ElephantVoices.Gorongosa National Park encompasses 3,770 km2, but elephants are currently using only a small portion of it. Their absence from large swaths of the park has ecological consequences that affect the distribution of other species, too. As long as fear persists as a response to people, it will be a deterrent to their expansion, all other factors remaining equal.

    Currently, Gorongosa's elephants have no particular incentive to explore a larger area. The habitat is bountiful and all indications are that elephants are not facing any nutritional stress that would encourage them to travel beyond their current home range: Gorongosa's elephants are big-bodied and in good condition.

    Another indication of their good nutrition is that mother elephants have unusually large breasts and are producing plenty of milk. We often see mothers  suckling two calves simultaneously (which is unusual in other populations), including calves belonging to other females (also unusual).

    Gorongosa families and clans

    Based on our current knowledge, the Gorongosa elephant population is made up of about 24 families living in two clans we have named the Urema and Pungue Clans. In addition there are some 150 independent adult males. Our data show some Gorongosa families to be very cohesive, while others appear much less so, joining and splitting along irregular lines. Likewise, we see variation in how gregarious families are. We postulate that the lack of cohesion we observe may be related to the massive poaching that took place during the civil war between1977 and1992, which left many families highly fragmented, lacking leaders and older females.

    Some of the families dominated by tuskless females are less cohesive than others dominated by tusked individuals that are highly cohesive. Families dominated by tuskless females may have been formed by orphaned females, or what we call “floater” females.

    Members of the V family of the Pungue Clan. Facing the camera are Vigilante (left) and matriarch, Valda (right), with Valda's six year old son in the middle. Of the seven adult females in the family, one has two tusks, Vigilante has one, and the remaining five are tuskless. ©ElephantVoices.

    A culture of fear and aggression

    Corajosa leads a Group-Charge by members of the C family of the Urema Clan. Note the distinctive u-shaped tear in her left ear. This family is made up of 19 adult females, five have two tusks, two have one tusk and 12 are tuskless; the family lacks cohesion. ©ElephantVoices.Gorongosa's elephant survivors haven't forgotten their gruesome experiences in Mozambique's civil war and, two decades later, they are still wary of people. When they do meet people they are likely to take defensive action - either fleeing or attacking. They regularly threaten, charge and chase vehicles and, on several occasions, have physically attacked and damaged them.

    While only those elephants over 25 years old would have memories of the war, young elephants learn how to behave in the context of their mothers and other family members. And mother elephants are good teachers! Aggression is so pervasive across families that we have coined the term “a culture of aggression” to describe the behavior that we have observed. How such behavior correlates with family or clan membership, and how it affects the integrity of elephant society and its Warning sign at the entrance gates to the game drive circuits in Gorongosa National Park. ©ElephantVoices.ability to recover from a period of poaching, is of special interest to us as scientists and conservationists. In recent years heavy poaching for ivory has destroyed the fabric of elephant societies across the continent of Africa. Whether and how these populations recover is of great concern.

    From the park's perspective there are other issues, too. One of the aims of the Gorongosa Restoration Project is to build tourism revenue and aggressive elephants are a cause for concern. Furthermore, elephants play an important role in shaping habitat, and the lack of elephants across much of the national park has consequences for other species and ecosystem processes.

    Understanding and respecting the signals of elephants

    We know that elephants are adaptable and can learn quickly. How rapidly will they learn that the park is safe again, and that tourists, at least, don't represent a threat? How will they adapt their behavior and who will do so first? What we discover may hold clues to how long it will take them to recolonize Gorongosa and how other elephant populations will recover from more recent waves of poaching.

    As we go about our work in Gorongosa, we keep detailed records of how different families respond to us and whether and how their reaction changes over time. We approach elephants slowly and cautiously and turn off the car engine at the first sign of apprehension or aggression from them. By doing so we aim to show them that we understand and respect their signals, that we mean them no harm. If they charge we stay still, showing them that we are not afraid of their bravado. Using this approach we are doing a bit of teaching ourselves, and we are beginning to see results. Some of the families that we have met on many occasions are learning that we don't represent a threat. For example, the notorious Mabenzi family, infamous for their aggressive Group-Charges has begun to approach us in curiosity and have stayed calmly, within a few meters of us, for half an hour. One Tusk, a legendary lone-charging matriarch, has also surprised us with her relatively calm demeanour.

    Female elephants are the quintessential drama queens; they revel in making a big deal about almost anything. And they display some of the most dramatic and terrifying defensive behavior. Much of it is bravado, but elephants are perfectly capable of forcing an issue. Our approach is not for the inexperienced nor for the faint-hearted, and we are extremely careful around those we don't know.  

    Here we parked 200 meters from the Mabenzi family, and allowed them to approach us. They eventually surrounded our car, some coming as close as four meters. They stayed with us for half an hour. In the picture the closest elephant to us is musth male, Viajante. ©ElephantVoices.

    Long lasting scars

    Tuskless matriarch, Valda, has a hole in her right ear that we believe was made by a bullet. ©ElephantVoices."Naughty behavior" and families lacking cohesion are not the only scars that poaching left on these elephants; there are indelible physical marks, too.For example, quite a number of elephants have holes in their ears that we believe were caused by bullets that missed their mark.

    Furthermore, among elephants over 25 years old the population is very skewed toward females, due to the fact that male elephants have much larger tusks and are, therefore, preferentially killed by poachers. Most obvious, though, is the high proportion of tuskless elephants. 

    Selection for tuskless elephants

    A few facts are neccessary to understand the occurrence of tusklessness in elephant populations that have experienced poaching. 1. Tusks continue to grow throughout most of an elephant's life, so that older elephants have larger tusks; 2. Tusks are a sexually dimporphic trait; the tusks of males weigh up to seven times those of females of the same age. 3. Tusklessness is a naturally occurring trait, and in populations that have suffered low levels of killing for ivory, or killing that many decades earlier, tusklessness occurs in about 2-4% of the female population. 4. Tusklessness is extremely rare among males because males need their tusks to fight for access to females; a tuskless male has a much lower chance of mating and passing on his genes than a tusked male of equal size and strength. Therefore, through the course of evolution, there has been strong selection for tusks in males. 5. Tusk shape, size and configuration, including tusklessness, is inherited.

    Since poachers select elephants with large tusks, they preferentially target males first and then older females. As killing persists poachers kill any elephant with tusks. The result is that tuskless elephants have a higher chance of survival than those with tusks and, therefore, the proportion of tusklessness in the population increases. A high proportion of tusklessness is a signature of a population that has been heavily poached. Since about half the female offspring of tuskless mothers are tuskless, the trait persists in a population for many, many years, although over generation the proportion will gradually decrease. In Gorongosa there are no tuskless males, but 50% of the females who were adult during the war are tuskless, and 32% of adult females born since the war (age 15-25) are tuskless.  

    The short film below is one of the outputs of a collaboration between ElephantVoices and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in which Joyce talks about tusklessness among elephants in general and some of our related findings in Gorongosa. This film, with footage from Gorongosa, is part of HHMI's Elephant Portal - and ElephantVoices efforts within educational outreach.

    If you want to learn more about Gorongosa and meet some of our big grey friends, watch the 2015 award-winning 6-part documentary series  "Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise". The series premiered in the United States between September 22 and October 6 2015. 
    You can watch the entire series via PBS LearningMedia. In Episode 2 (Elephant Whisperer) and episode 5 (Battle Lines) you get glimps into the early work of ElephantVoices in Gorongosa. Direct links to full episodes: Episode 2, Episode 5. The series was aired on PBS and National Geographic Wild.