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Elephant research in the Eastern Cape

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Elephant research at Kariega Game Reserve and in the Eastern Cape

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 for further information on the programme. 

Young Elephant Eating Kariega Game Reserve M Price

The effects of elephants at low densities and after short occupation time on the ecosystems of the Eastern Cape

Elephants (Loxodonta africana, Blumenbach) are recognised as keystone herbivores and ecosystem engineers in African ecosystems due to the noticeable impact they have on plant communities. This impact can influence other animal taxa and ecosystem processes, especially within enclosed systems. I investigated the effects of elephants in four vegetation types and the cascade effect on three associated taxa and two ecosystem processes at five sites with elephants and five paired sites without elephants in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, between April 2005 and July 2007. 

In grassland habitats, the physical structure of the vegetation was neither enhanced nor degraded in the presence of elephants. Within the locally important Thicket Biome, elephant browsing transformed relatively homogeneous stands of vegetation into more heterogeneous units. However, although seeds from thicket plant species were recorded in elephant dung, elephants did not promote the viability and germination success of these plants. In addition, elephant foraging on aloes caused declines in their populations. By contrast, the size of bushclumps was not reduced in the presence of elephants in bushclump savanna. The associated insect, bird and mammal communities appeared to benefit from elephant foraging in all vegetation types assessed, whereas vegetation patch dynamics and soil surface processes were neither enhanced nor degraded in the presence of elephants. 

I conclude that, at current densities, elephants do not (in most cases) negatively affect plant and animal communities or ecosystem processes in enclosed reserves. However, elephants have only been present at each site for a relatively short period and it is likely that their impact will be cumulative, increasing over time in these closed systems. Thus, future research along a continuum of elephant density and time since re-introduction is recommended.

Author: Daniel Parker

Thesis and Institution: A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of doctor of philosophy of Rhodes University.

Download the full research paper.