Africa’s gardeners
UI graduate student leads project to improve relationship between humans and elephants

May 2, 2017

While most people think of elephants in terms of their massive size and gentle nature, Paola Branco likes to think of elephants in three ways — as engineers, architects and gardeners.

“Elephants are a keystone species, which means many other species depend on them, and an unbalanced population of elephants can lead to a dramatic change in the Savannah landscape,” Branco said. 

The Brazil native and University of Idaho graduate student researching elephant-human relationships in Mozambique said the lifestyle habits of elephants help shape the landscape.

The animals can walk more than 50 miles per day. As they walk, they clear trees and vegetation from their path, which helps keep the Savannas optimal for grazing animals. In times of drought, Branco said elephants can also remember where water used to be.

“With their trunks and tusks they can dig holes and find water for themselves and other species,” Branco said.

Elephants also spend about half of the day eating and their diets include various fruits, vegetables, leaves and seeds.

“This is why they’re called gardeners,” Branco said. “While they are walking long distances and eating lots of seeds, they poop every 45 minutes — can you imagine how much they are planting?”

Despite the key role elephants play in their ecosystems, their populations are continuing to decline. The 2016 Great Elephant Census, the largest continent-wide wildlife survey, found that in 15 of the 18 African countries surveyed, 144,000 elephants were lost to the ivory trade and habitat destruction in less than a decade.

Poaching for ivory is the main threat to elephant populations, but Branco said there are other threats that few are aware of — habitat loss and conflicts with humans.

Due to natural habitat loss, most elephant populations are now restricted to national parks and other protected areas of land. Branco said the problem is the land around national parks is often used for agriculture, and elephants don’t recognize the difference between a farmer’s livelihood and a tasty snack.

This problem is at the heart of the research Branco is currently conducting with elephant populations in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

“This is the main thing about my research — to find ways to keep elephants inside these protected areas avoiding interactions with the communities, because it’s dangerous for them and it’s dangerous for people,” Branco said.

This is a problem several countries in Africa face, and Branco said each country has developed their own solution.

Branco said in Kenya, local communities build fences lined with beehives around their farms.

“Everyone thinks elephants have very thick skin, but they do have sensitive areas,” Branco said. “The tip of their trunk is very sensitive. The ears, and the belly too. And as any of us, they don’t like to get stung by bees.”

The fences consist of beehives connected by a wire. If an elephant touches the wire, vibrations shake the hives and aggravate the bees, which deter elephants from moving forward into the farm.

In Tanzania, Branco said a popular method is covering fences in cloth dipped in a mixture of chili powder and engine oil, which produces an unpleasant smell that can agitate an elephant’s nose.

However, methods that work for one country might not work for another. Although beehive fences have been successful in Kenya, Branco said there are concerns that if her research team provides Mozambique community members with wire to build beehive fences, local farmers will instead use the wires to make traps for elephants.

“It’s important to understand the human point of view,” Branco said. “We can’t just go into a different country and try to apply something we think is going to save the elephants. We firstly have to understand the complexity of the whole system in terms of culture, religion, politics and economy.”

One way to better understand the local communities is to document the problems they are facing. Branco said in August of last year, she enlisted the help of 10 community members.

Every day, these community members take reports from local farmers whose farms have been raided by elephants. Their reports include the time and date of the incidences, the GPS coordinates and details of the events. In addition to taking community reports and tracking the migration pattern of a select group of elephants, Branco said she and her team brainstorm strategies to better educate local communities about the importance of elephants.

“When working with poor communities this task goes beyond teaching how important elephants are for the environment and tourism,” Branco said.  “While there is lack of food, water, shelter and security, it is almost impossible to make people concerned about elephant conservation, especially if elephants are eating their crops.” 

Ryan Long, a UI faculty member and Branco’s graduate advisor, said Branco was approached about leading this project because a mutual colleague believed she would be perfect for the job — and she was.

“Paola is really well-suited for this project,” Long said. “She’s been the perfect person to do it. It’s a master’s level project, but it’s got a lot of complexity associated with it. Not just from a biology standpoint, but from a sociological standpoint.”

Long said there is tremendous value in her research — that it’s not only important for the communities surrounding Gorongosa National Park, but it’s also the kind of research that should be shared with the Moscow community.

“The reality is we are all humans, we are all people, and we are all living in a world that is connected in such a way that the things happening in other parts of the world are important,” Long said. “We should care about conserving animals not just around us, but ones in other parts of the world.”

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