Fenced off! Habitat preference by elephant herds in a small protected area – a cause for concern?

Tarik Bodasing1, Bruce Page, Abi Vanak, Kevin Duffy

1Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Mkuze Game Reserve

In order to effectively manage large mammals in fenced protected areas, conservation authorities require a sound knowledge of the factors driving variation in spatial use. Included in this is the consideration of habitat preferences and movement patterns and how these may vary at different scales. Increasing elephant densities within fenced reserves in South Africa has lead to concerns being voiced by managers and researchers alike, regarding impacts on biodiversity. Fenced systems remove opportunities for extensive dispersal and potentially concentrate spatial utilization. Habitat selection and movement patterns may become increasingly less flexible, particularly where habitats are highly fragmented. Using location data for five distinct female elephant herds, and spanning a two-year period, we explored habitat preference in relation to seasonal vegetation productivity. We examined daily movement patterns and assessed the drivers of variation in movement over the course of a day. Consistent with previous work on optimal foraging patterns, our results suggest that female herds prefer greener habitats in the dry season, concurrent with a diet focused on widespread woody species. Scarp forest and thicket habitat were intensively utilized in the dry season and scarp and riparian forest utilized in the wet season. Variation in daily movement responses was evident between herds, seasons and across the day. Elephants chose habitats with higher densities of favoured food species as inferred by path tortuosity, step length and diet selection. We suggest that lower displacement rates in the early morning and evening indicate crepuscular foraging activity. Based on the outcomes of this study, certain sensitive habitat types may come under threat in the near future. It is crucial that managers of small protected areas realize that elephant spatial use may vary considerably over time and between groups, and should attempt to incorporate this into monitoring frameworks and management initiatives.

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Fenced off! Habitat preference by elephant herds in a small protected area – a cause for concern?


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