What habitat does an elephant choose? Not as much as it could.
The amount of land African elephants could inhabit is around 18 million square kilometres – a larger area than Russia – but their actual range is only 17% of this wide-ranging space, new research shows.
Much of the reason for the small range was due to human pressure and the killing of elephants as part of the ivory trade.
Key research points:
- 18 million square kilometres in Africa is suitable for elephants
- African elephants only occupy 17% of this
- Major threats are the ivory trade and human pressure
“We looked at every square kilometre of the continent,” says lead author Jake Wall, of the Mara Elephant Project in Kenya. “We found that 62% of those 29.2 million square kilometres is suitable habitat.”
Wall and team analysed elephant habitat by using GPS tracking of 229 elephants – both savannah (Loxodonta africana) forest (L. cyclotis) species – over 15 years. Using Google Earth, they compared their movements to vegetation, tree cover, ground surface temperature, water, human influence and protected areas to see what conditions they could tolerate.
“Combining three powerful tools – GPS telemetry, continent-wide remote sensing at a fine resolution, and a suite of analytical techniques – has allowed us to see what factors now control the movements and lives of these two hugely ecologically important species, and where, if circumstances change, they could range more widely across their historical African home,” says Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Elephants are generalist mega-herbivores that can occupy fringe habitats,” Wall says. “Their range may have shrunk, but if we gave them the chance, they could spread back to former parts of it.”
The paper was published in Current Biology.
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Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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