Research: impact of elephants in Eastern Cape reserves

06Sep
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Visual changes in elephant body condition in relation to resource availability in Eastern Cape game reserves

The Kariega Conservation Volunteers assist the wildlife management team on the reserve with numerous conservation projects, including elephant research. We are sharing this article to further assist the volunteers to gain insights into wildlife management. Please contact our Conservation Volunteer Co-ordinator, Helena Warren via email volunteer@kariega.co.za for further information on the programme.

Kariega Game Reserve Elephant

Detecting changes in elephant body condition in relation to resource quality

Elephants, as megaherbivores, are known to have extensive impacts on vegetation, especially in enclosed areas. This raises the issue that elephants in enclosed areas may become limited by resource availability. Resource limitation is generally expressed via density dependence, but elephants, due to their slow demography, may not be affected by initial changes in resource availability. This highlights the need for a more sensitive measure of resource limitation to allow for the detection of energy stress within a population before changes in vital rates occur. This study investigated visual changes in elephant body condition in relation to resource availability in a number of Eastern Cape reserves to assess whether body condition could be used to detect life stages, as well as seasons and sites which may be resource limited. Elephant life stages were divided into energy stressed (newly weaned calves, lactating females, and old females) and non-energy stressed classes (sub-adults and non-lactating females) to determine whether energy stressed life stages were more vulnerable to resource limitation. In the AENP it was found that lactating and old females exhibited significantly poorer body condition than non-energy stressed individuals, but that weaned calves had body conditions similar to non-energy stressed individuals. Comparisons between seasons revealed that all life stages exhibited better condition in winter than summer or spring, with lactating females showing little recovery of condition over time. Seasonal body conditions were correlated with rainfall recorded in the Addo Elephant National Park. Comparisons of elephant body condition between sites (n = 6) revealed that body condition varied across sites, with poorer body condition associated with areas of higher elephant density and low rainfall during the study period. Comparisons with faecal dietary quality data both between sites and seasons indicated that body condition also responded to changes in the availability of protein and neutral detergent fibre (NDF) of plant resources, with higher protein and lower values associated with better condition. Based on condition estimates of elephants occurring in the Addo Main Camp, it was established that this population is experiencing nutritional stress, with energy stressed individuals exhibiting the lowest body conditions. This was supported by dietary quality measures. Our findings suggest that elephant body condition is a good measure for detecting resource limitation, both within populations and between seasons, and that elephant body condition respond to relatively small changes in resource conditions, thus making it an effective measure for the detection of nutritional stress. Additionally, our findings show that energy stressed individuals, particularly lactating and old females are more vulnerable to resource limitation. This demonstrates the importance of monitoring these life stages for the detection of density dependence within populations. Finally, our data suggest that threshold values of faecal dietary quality may exist at which body condition within a population begins to deteriorate, making it possible to determine the condition of a population through values obtained in faecal samples.

Author: Christelle de Klerk

Thesis and Institution: Submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Magister Scientiae in the Faculty of Science at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Download the full thesis.

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