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Elephants escaped from illegal hunting in less dangerous and more well-fed places

Shifra Goldenberg / Save the Elephants and Colorado State University

Zoologists have found that elephants, whose groups have suffered from illegal hunting, change their place of residence. As scientists write in an article published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences , animals begin to avoid dangerous areas, and keep closer to places with an abundance of food. If only young elephants remained in the group, they more often expanded their territory and went to new places.

Philopatria is the desire of animals to periodically return to their birthplace or live there permanently. Good terrain knowledge allows them to effectively use the home territory to search for food and shelter. Some species from generation to generation walk the same paths and, depending on the season, use the same places for feeding or breeding. In long-living animals, which are held by groups of representatives of different generations, (for example, killer whales or elephants), social learning plays a huge role and affects the survival of young animals. Senior members of the group teach the young to orient themselves in familiar places and guide their familiar routes.

One of the philopatric species, African savannah elephants ( Loxodonta africana africana ) live in groups, each headed by a matriarch – a grandmother or mother of the rest of the animals. According to different data ( 1 , 2 ), the family can migrate from one generation to another in one territory, or for decades its range varies. In recent decades, the scale of illegal hunting for savannah elephants has grown; because of this, their population is estimatedto decrease by three percent per year. Probably, hunting affects the movement and distribution of elephant families.

To find this out, British and American zoologists, led by George Wittemyer of the University of Colorado, from 2002 to 2017 tracked the movements of 18 elephants wearing collars with GPS trackers. Observations were conducted in the National Reserves of Samburu and Buffalo Springs in the north of Kenya.

It turned out that almost all families of elephants changed territory in varying degrees with time. All animals migrated west or north, away from places where illegal hunting was conducted, and closer to more accessible sources of food. The socio-demographic status of the group influenced migration. Families, where poachers killed adults and only young people, more often expanded their area and went to new territories.

“We saw that elephants are able to recognize dangerous places and avoid them,” says Wittemeer. “But in families that have lost mothers and matriarchs, the range has changed more strongly. Using different behavior, the population becomes capable of responding to emerging hazards and recovering from poaching, which has reached a critical level. “

As previously explained by the authors of the article, orphaned elephants are not looking for a foster mother, but prefer to spend time in the company of peers. Another group of zoologists proposed to monitor poachers with the help of DNA elephants. Comparison of DNA from elephant dung and tusks, confiscated from poachers, will allow to determine the places where illegal hunting is most intense.

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