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Elephant monitoring at LEO Africa - Three months with Eike

Elephant: A Keystone Species

Elephants are the largest animals on land and play a crucial role in the balance of the African ecosystem due to their disproportional large effect on the environment.

They feed on various trees and shrubs, which protect themselves by releasing bitter-tasting defence chemicals. In defence, elephants often rip out the whole plant, before they ultimately move on to new plants to feed on leaving behind uneaten plant debris.

The resulting fallen trees and cleared shrubs offers new plants the opportunity to grow and the fallen debris enriches the soil with new nutrients. However, with high numbers of elephants in an area this can prove destructive, leaving the landscape with few large trees and having a detrimental effect on the ecosystem and many other wildlife species if not managed. Elephants, which can travel up to 80km per day, also leave behind dung, which serves both as a fertiliser as well as an important way for many trees to disperse their seeds.

All these factors lead to elephants being considered a keystone species due to their large impact on their ecosystem. As it is impossible nowadays for these large animals to migrate once an area is eaten clean, due to fences, population numbers need to be closely monitored and managed, as to preserve an ecological equilibrium between all wildlife.

Elephant Monitoring Project

An annual game count, conducted by helicopter, gives the Park Management an idea of how many elephants, and other species, the Park contains. This initial number served as an indication, as the helicopter count had to be done over a number of days to cover the whole park. It is important to follow this up with on the ground data to verify the helicopter count and have a detailed picture of the herds structure.

As part of LEO’s Elephant Monitoring Project the previous volunteers and I focused on tracking, monitoring and identifying the elephants.

My job was to check up on the previously created ID Kits. Nearly all of the fully-grown females and males can be identified easily and have detailed ID Kits. The sub-adults and calves are more difficult and can often only be identified via face wrinkles and veins in their ears. This meant that I had to be very meticulous and detailed in my work.

During my time I was able to fill in many of the sub-adult and calf ID Kits, giving us a better and more thorough picture about the herd structures and numbers. In total I identified around 60% of the Park’s elephant population. I also managed to identify over 30 double elephant ID Kits and reorganised the herd structure of 4 herds. The next Elephant Monitoring Assistant will continue my job of checking up on the ID Kits. By the end of the year we will hopefully have a full set of detailed ID Kits ready for the Park Management to evaluate.

I want to thank Koos and Sabrina for this amazing opportunity; Michael, Veronica, Lisa, Mark and Louise for their expert guiding; Caroline for the smooth running of our base and all the volunteers for the fun we had. Thank you so much!

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