University of British Columbia and Oxford University researchers have revealed the secrets of survival of an endangered population of African elephants in the unforgiving Sahara desert. The animals have the largest migration among elephants, the study finds, but recent violence in Mali may now be putting them at risk.
A two-year study, to appear in January's edition of Biological Conservation, tracked the elephants' migration with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars. Its findings advance conservation efforts for the animals, which are facing increased armed conflict in Mali between government forces and Touareg rebels.
"In recent years, the Mali elephants have largely managed to maintain their numbers in extreme natural conditions of heat and drought," says lead researcher Jake Wall, a UBC Dept. of Geography PhD candidate, whose study received support from Save The Elephants, a Kenya-based conservation group. "The uprising occurring in northern Mali puts them at greater risk, as does increasing human settlement in their traditional territory and the growing risk of ivory poaching."
The study focused on the Gourma elephants of Mali's northern region, which are arguably the world's toughest elephants. The desert-adapted species frequently endure sand storms, water shortages, and temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius (122 Farenheit). Hunting, drought and climate changes have reduced their population to an estimated 350 elephants.
The study reveals the elephants travel more than 32,000 square kilometers annually in search of food and water -- the largest area ever recorded for any elephant species.
The elephants spend concentrated periods in several key areas and rely on a network of pathways, including a critical sandstone passage known as "la Porte des Elephants." The study identifies 10 "hot spots" essential for their survival that should be protected for conservation purposes.
Backgrounder: Ivory poaching
Gourma elephants have largely been spared from the ivory poaching crisis ravaging elephant populations across Africa, but at least three have been killed this year. More....