Hwange Elephant Movements – Not Just a Flight of Fashion
I read in the March edition of British Vogue that fashion is being impacted by climate change. How so? Well, the seasons have shifted and what was traditionally ‘a/w’ or ‘s/s’ (meaning ‘autumn/winter’ or ‘spring/summer’ – took me a while to figure that out) is no longer, which affects planning with ramifications that rumble all the way back up along the multi-faceted supply chain. Clothes normally sold in autumn are not flying off the shelves as expected, owing to languid summers with extra-warm temperatures creeping into the traditional cooler seasons. Then, thick coats and jackets remain on shelves during winter months owing to warmer temperatures during the warmer-than-normal winter months. The cost impact is being felt by the fashion industry and so, fashionistas must now change their traditional behaviour.
This idea of behavioural changes is echoed in the natural world. Elephants and other wildlife at the mercy of food and water supply in response to seasons are also responding to these changes – maybe more efficiently than the fashion industry. Resident in Hwange National Park, our environmentalist, Arnold Tshipa, is writing his MPhil thesis that examines the movement patterns of elephants, where they go, how large their range is and what behaviour drives them to move and when. I was able to catch up with him on his recent visit to Victoria Falls this month and we discussed his work.
Elephants have been moving over enormous distances, from Botswana through the Hwange area all the way to Gweta; archaeological finds tell us this much. But since the early 1930s, when Hwange was established as a national park, lack of permanent water has affected these ancient movement patterns. To monitor and record this movement, elephants are fitted with radio-tracking collars that send off a signal every hour which literally allows Arnold to join the dots to create movement tracks and establish the area covered by each elephant in the programme. Arnold has collared 10 elephants, but one of the collars was faulty and so he is now only able to track nine out of his 10 ‘project participants.’ Aside from a collar becoming faulty, the other challenge is that the battery life has a limited life expectancy! The project is in its third year, and so now it is reasonable to expect that batteries are going to start dying.
I asked Arnold whether there was any chance that you could see that the battery was going to die, like you can on your cell phone, or when you are running out of airtime and you hear those fateful fast panicky beeps before your airtime and phone dies. Apparently, the technicians and scientists haven’t figured that out yet, so when the batteries die, the last location of the elephant will be given and that will be overlaid with the elephant’s usual movement patterns. In this way they are be able to find the elephant and recover the collar. But importantly, technology has improved enormously from the first days of collecting data in the field from a moving target. Before this, the satellite information would give a GPS point only, but the technology that Arnold is using actually pinpoints the position of the elephant as a moving record. This can be overlaid on Google Earth so you can now add in environmental (vegetation) understanding as well.
Within the whole programme over the past three years a total of 32 elephants have been collared and are being tracked. Looking at the different-coloured elephant paths on the map reminded me of my attempts to learn knitting in primary school, which never really graduated past unravelled kinks of yarn. However, the messages that these elephant paths are telling are a lot more constructive. For example, the traditional onset of the wet or rainy season has changed so that the rains now come later, in December or even January. Which means that the elephants’ movements – or home range – have changed too. What is noticeable, like fashion, is that this home range differs from elephant to elephant. The various statuses are either migrant, part-migrant or resident. This is the purpose of the project – to establish migratory patterns of various elephant populations to determine their home ranges.
Now, what is even more interesting is that of the 32 elephants collared, all of them are females. Why? Males are mostly nomadic, moving around all over the show, and that doesn’t tell Arnold anything scientific. Females on the other hand move in a well organised manner from point A to point B and then back to point A and that gives him more information around the constraints of a migrant elephant population on the home range. From this, Arnold is able to establish what influence the habitat places on the migratory patterns of resident and migratory groups of elephants.
And finally, the third dimension that the elephant movement project is investigating is demography. This looks at the number of elephants per age and sex within the study group. What that actually tells Arnold, is: does the demography of the herd influence the migratory decision – or doesn’t it make a difference?
The sample size of this project is small by comparison to the number of elephants estimated within the whole of Hwange National Park which means that the project needs to move into phase two – that is to explore deeper into the western reaches of Hwange towards the Botswana border. It is in this undiscovered territory that Arnold is motivating to look at collaring more elephants to add to his study. If you are interested in learning more, or contributing towards funding of this new phase of the project, please go to http://www.wildernesstrust.com/portfolio/hwange-elephant-movement-study/ via the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust page.
Written by Marian Myers
Photographed by Mike Myers
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