The largest population of elephants on the planet lives in northern Botswana. By recent estimates, close to 200,000 elephants roam freely through the region’s maze of waterways, mopane forests, reed beds, and grasslands.
Botswana is the land of elephants. With a population of close to 200,000 elephants, the country claims the largest free-roaming population on the planet.
Thousands more live in regions bordering Botswana, in Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, across an area of 440,000 square kilometers known as the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA).
The eastern Okavango Panhandle appears to be of particular importance to elephants. In 2008, Dr. Songhurst and colleagues estimated the elephant population to be 8,905. In 2010, they estimated 15,429. Modeling those numbers with earlier estimates, Dr. Songhurst discovered a surprising rate of increase: 9% per year. Given what we know about elephant life cycles, a 9% per year population increase is very high.
For Dr. Songhurst, the 9% increase in the elephant population suggests elephants in the eastern Panhandle may be coming in from other areas, perhaps Namibia or Angola, where disturbance or even poaching is higher. Another possibility is elephants are drawn to the Panhandle from other areas of Botswana because they are finding habitats and vegetation types that are important or attractive. Maybe both things are happening. This would mean that there must be a certain amount of movement across the buffalo and border fence, which have previously thought to be barriers to elephant movements.
Some conservationists and policy makers are discussing a reallignment of the fences. One idea is to make the Wildlife Management Area of NG13 part of the KAZA TFCA, effectively opening up or widening a corridor for elephants and other wildlife. Doing so, however, might intensify the conflict between people and elephants inside the newly demarcated area. Though moving the fence could free up more space for elephant movement; it may also or instead further impede elephants from leaving, closing them into a smaller space and excerbating resource competition and conflicts with people. A greater understanding of elephant movements in this area is therefore needed to inform such important management decisions.
In the eastern Okavango Panhandle, elephants roam freely but often have to come in to areas where people are living, planting fields, herding livestock, and walking to and from school. Between April and June each year, the elephants move southwards to the permanent waters and food resources of the Delta. As they follow timeworn migratory routes, the elephants often have to negotiate paths between fields and settlements, where people are shouting and banging drums, dogs are barking and fires are burnt.
Dr. Songhurst’s work has already helped us understand a lot about elephant behavior in the Panhandle. We know, for example, elephants tend to avoid humans as much as possible, steering clear of cultivated lands, settlements, and fences, preferring to stick to well defined elephant pathways when moving through fields and settlements.. There are a few elephants, predominnantly male, that seek out fields to raid, but in the Panhandle, elephants tend to be mostly opportunistic; when they come close to fields, they are more likely to raid crops. Dr. Songhurst’s analysis also showed that farmers with fields closer (< 1.2 kms) to elephant pathways were twice as likely to be raided!
Elephants seem to prefer pathways that are relatively distant from human development and disturbance. When people establish new farms or settlements near the pathways, elephants tend to veer away and the number of elephant groups using those pathways tends to decrease. Importantly, though, the number of elephants in each herd increases. This means elephants seem to bunch together in bigger numbers, perhaps for safety, when their pathways came into contact with farmers’ fields or settlements.
These findings are promising for many reasons. They provide clear rationale for careful land use planning and policies that recognize elephant pathways as protected habitats and enable farmers to plant fields in areas that can be protected from elephants. However, we need greater understanding of land and resource needs and uses, both current and projected, for people and elephants. We need greater understanding of the elephants specifically—their numbers, movements, behaviors, seasonal habitats, and preferred resources. For these reasons, we have collared 20 elephants in the eastern Panhandle, 10 bulls and 10 females, and are tracking them every day for the next 4-6 years. We collared an additional eight elephant bulls in the western Okavango Panhandle.