Savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are intelligent, sociable, affectionate animals. They portray behaviors similar to humans such as caring for weaker individuals, adoption of orphaned calves and grieving over dead companions. Living in family groups of varying sizes and led by matriarchs, elephants traverse vast landscapes in search of food and water, paying no attention to political borders. With a single mature individual consuming between 250 and 350 kg of vegetation and requiring 110 to 190 litres of water per day, the home ranges of these elephants can span several hundred square kilometres. As a result, elephants play an important role in the modification of ecosystems and creation of conditions suitable for the survival of some plants and animals. They maintain grasslands by reducing tree cover and create water ponds/ wallows for other wildlife as they dig for water using their trunks and tusks. They help with the dispersal and germination of tree species such as Borassus palms and Balanitis aegyptiaca trees, which are native to much of Africa.
There are around 5,000 elephants in Uganda today. They are mostly found in the landscapes of Kidepo, Murchison-Semliki, and the Greater Virunga Landscape. With a very low reproduction rate (one calf per female every 8.6 years), elephant populations recover more slowly than many other animals, with a maximum annual population growth of about 6%.
WCS activities to conserve elephants in Uganda
For several years, WCS Uganda has worked in partnership with other stakeholders like the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to address elephant conservation challenges and threats in the country. Our approach is to understand the ecological requirements of different elephant populations; mapping challenges/threats faced in the different locations; and then working with partners to devise and implement suitable interventions. We use Satellite Telemetry (radio collars) as a key technique to study home ranges of elephants, identifying where they move and which areas appear to be critical for their long-term survival. Using this technique, WCS has studied and mapped home ranges of elephant groups in Queen Elizabeth (QENP), Murchison Falls (MFNP) and Kidepo Valley (KVNP) National Parks since 2006.
Besides obtaining an understanding of elephant movements and habitat needs in these different locations, we are now able to point out locations where human-elephant conflicts occur or are likely to occur. This vital information has provided the basis for several elephant conservation interventions. For example, we now know that 50% of the elephants in the Kidepo area spend more time in the community area to the south of the park than inside the park. Elephant telemetry also partly informed the development of the QENP corridor action plan aimed at conserving wildlife corridors around QENP. It helped to identify critical islands in Lake George for this species during the dry season. Some of the interventions include:
Creation of barriers: WCS has dug several elephant trenches and planted rows of Mauritius thorn hedges along some sections of the park boundary to minimize crop-raiding
Introducing deterrents: we have worked with communities neighboring the park to plant deterrent crops such as hot chillis, which repulse elephants. This intervention also enables communities to generate an income from the sale of the chillis
Alternative livelihoods: we have engaged neighboring communities in land-use planning strategies and the promotion of alternative livelihood options to reduce pressure on the land in elephant corridors
Allocating resources: WCS is prioritizing the allocation of resources to the conservation of areas important for elephant survival both within and outside protected areas
Law enforcement: we are supporting law enforcement activities to minimize the poaching and killing of elephants
More recently we have been assessing the impacts of oil exploration and development in Murchison Falls National Park on elephants. WCS has shown that elephants avoid oil drill pads by at least 1 km radius when drilling is taking place. We are also in the process of assessing the impacts of seismic exploration on this species using radio-collaring. In 2013, WCS collaborated with Total E&P Uganda to attach eight collars on elephants in Murchison Falls National Park to monitor the impact of oil exploration (3D seismic) activities on their behavior.
Threats to elephant conservation in Uganda
African elephants face several global and country-specific threats. At the global level, killing of elephants for their ivory is by far the most pronounced threat. Illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest transnational crime in the world. Ivory – sometimes called “the white gold of jihad” – helps fund the military operations of notorious terrorist groups. Smuggling gangs move tons of tusks to markets thousands of miles away. In 2012 alone,35,000 elephants were butchered for their tusks in Africa: that is 96 elephants each day. Because of weak law enforcement,Uganda is a major transit route of illegal ivory from other African countries.To combat this threat, WCS is working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and other partners to develop and implement a strategy to curb the ivory trade and trafficking in Uganda.
At the local level, the greatest threat to elephants is habitat loss which is driven by Uganda’s rapid human population growth and demand for agricultural land. In the early 1960s, most of north and western Uganda was wild and sparsely populated. Elephants migrated between parks and forest reserves with little hindrance. However, steady human population growth and periodic insurgencies have gradually curtailed the movement of elephants and other species, with villages and communities developing close to National Parks and migratory corridors. This has led to isolated elephant populations in the parks.As elephants struggle to meet their dietary needs in this restricted environment, instances of crop-raiding are on the increase, putting livelihoods at stake and escalating human-wildlife conflicts.
Threats to elephants are not limited to areas outside the parks. Recently the government of Uganda issued licenses to different oil companies to explore for oil in some protected areas including Murchison Falls National Park. This has led to a huge human population influx, resulting in an increased risk of poaching.Though the long-term impact of oil exploration on elephants is not yet clear, it is believed that some exploration activities may influence their behavior and movements.