Scots scientists develop monitoring technique to protect elephants

Researchers at a Scottish university have developed an innovative monitoring technique to help protect the world's elephants.
The Stirling team observed elephants in Tanzanias northern protected areas. Picture: ContributedThe Stirling team observed elephants in Tanzanias northern protected areas. Picture: Contributed
The Stirling team observed elephants in Tanzanias northern protected areas. Picture: Contributed

A cost-effective approach to monitoring the health of elephant populations could help measure the impact of poaching on the animals, according to a new study involving the University of Stirling.

Working with the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program, the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Stirling scientists carried out a rapid demographic assessment (RDA) of six important elephant populations.

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It is the first time that the RDA method has been used to monitor elephants on a national scale and over a prolonged period. Following the success of the study, experts now believe the approach could provide vital data on the impact of poaching for the ivory trade – and identify areas where progress is being made in combating the problem.

The Stirling team observed that elephants in Tanzania’s northern protected areas, which benefit from higher levels of tourism and protection and are not as affected by poaching. They compared them to those in the less-visited areas in the south and west of the country.

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“We found that populations in the north of Tanzania, such as the Serengeti and Tarangire, had healthy population structures,” said Dr Jeremy Cusack, a postdoctoral research assistant. “These elephants are faring well because they benefit from adequate resources for protection and tourism.

“However, we observed that populations in Tanzania’s less-visited and under-resourced southern protected areas had altered age structures, with fewer calves and old individuals. There were also fewer adult males relative to the number of adult females, and a lower number of dependent individuals per adult female.

“We also found that poached populations had a much higher proportion of tuskless individuals, at more than six per cent.”

He added: “These characteristics are signatures of poaching for the ivory trade which has affected Tanzania’s western and southern elephant populations to a much greater extent than the northern populations.

“It will take many years and, in some cases, decades of security and stability to heal and return to a healthy and normally functioning population structure.”

Elephant population trends are usually studied through the monitoring of elephant numbers. But the Stirling team believe the RDA method provides a more detailed insight into the health of elephant populations.

A primary goal of the research was to develop the RDA method as a tool to aid elephant protection by assessing impacts of poaching for the ivory trade across Tanzania.