I just returned home after spending two weeks in Botswana with Mike Chase, the Henderson Endowed Research Fellow within the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Mike and Kelly Landen, program manager for Elephants Without Borders, were very gracious hosts, and I am excited to announce that at the end of the year, when Mike’s postdoc with the Institute is over, we will be continuing our collaboration assisting Elephants Without Borders to ensure the conservation of elephants along with many other species.
The first week of my visit was spent in Kasane and the Chobe National Park. Within this area of Botswana is one of the densest elephant populations in the world and one of the last remaining strongholds for elephants on this planet. This is an extremely important population, considering the onslaught of elephant poaching in the northwest and central Africa. Recent estimates suggest that tens of thousands of elephants are poached each year, the highest numbers since the late 1980s.
During one of our drives down the Chobe River, we observed approximately 1,000 elephants ranging in herds from 10 to 100. We also visited an artificial waterhole late in the afternoon one day, where we found approximately 80 elephants taking turns drinking. Within 30 minutes, I had observed every general category of behavior that elephants engage in, including play, social affiliation, aggression, feeding, and self maintenance (dust bathing), just to name a few. We were even lucky enough to see multiple young calves nursing; one of them looked to be less than a week old. It was truly amazing and exactly what we strive for with our elephants at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, ensuring they have the opportunities to engage in a diversity of behaviors similar to their wild counterparts.
My second week in Botswana was spent in the Okavango Delta. Although in a different area of the delta, the smell of wild sage reminded me of my first trip there. Wild sage can be found quite frequently and has such a wonderful odor. In the Delta, elephant populations are not as dense as those in Chobe National Park, but you have one of the largest continuous ecosystems virtually untouched by man, with the exception of some small safari lodges. Efforts there are underway to explore relationships between habitat type and large herbivore population abundance. This is important work for determining things like carrying capacity and habitat necessary for different species of wildlife.
While in the Delta, we tracked some collared elephants using radio telemetry and collected fecal samples as part of an ongoing study looking at stress in elephants living in different areas. With the continued expansion of human populations, understanding how elephants and people can continue to live together will be vital for the future. Over the next couple of months, we will be looking for funding to start a new project examining the effects of ecotourism on key species such as elephants to ensure future generations have the ability to view these amazing animals.
Lance Miller is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, What is Animal Welfare?
Watch our own African elephant herd daily on Elephant Cam!