Elephants Prefer Paths to Their Favourite Food

As human-elephant conflict continues to rise in many countries, a new study in Kenya has shed light on bringing down the conflicts. In a major finding, the researchers from the University of Oxfordfound that elephants make considered decisions about which paths to take based purely on their favourite food

The researchers noted that the findings may be critical in helping conservationists forecast potential human-elephant conflict hotspots. The researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery to investigate how plant diversity affects elephant movements. Journal Remote Sensing published the findings. The study could help conservationists forecast potential human-elephant conflict hotspots when favourite plants overlap with human settlements.


The researchers collaborated with the charity Save the Elephants on a unique project in the rural community of Sagalla in Tsavo Kenya, a hotspot for crop-raiding elephants. They collaborated to investigate how plant diversity on a micro scale affects elephant movement. They tracked the footprints of elephants using a high-resolution hand-held Garmin GPS. This captures point to point fixes at every 3-5 seconds, and overlaid it with free high-resolution satellite imagery.

The Sentinel 2A imagery, obtained through an open-source satellite managed by the European Space Agency, enabled them to map every single piece of vegetation within each 10m pixel in and around Sagalla. Elephants are normally tracked at 1-hour intervals. However, the handheld satellite GPS captures all the twists and turns, every thorny thicket, every tree that an elephant would take on its chosen path. The elephant data from the study covers the period from January 2015 to 2020.


The study found that bull elephants preferred to walk paths that lead to plants called Combretum and Cissus which the bulls eat. Family groups will walk paths that have Commiphora and Terminalia, which are a dietary preference for family groups comprising females and young calves. Furthermore, when the two groups combine and move together, they choose paths that have or lead to areas where both preferred delicacies are available, in other words ensuring there’s something for everyone

Save the Elephants, the University of Oxford and the Sagalla community have been working together since 2009, starting with a project to explore how beehive fences could be used to reduce conflict with elephants. The satellite imagery project came about when the Sagalla community asked the researchers to help them better understand why and where elephants were foraging in the buffer zone of vegetation between the houses and the park boundary.

Lead author Gloria Mugo, from Save the Elephants, said: ‘It is incredible the level of detail we can infer from free satellite imagery about the processes that control the spatial dynamics of elephant movements. A lot is known about what kind of foods are eaten by elephants, however, being able to single out the fact that their movements can be driven by their fancied, gender-based diet, helps to further our understanding of micro-level ecological interactions.’


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