Three new projects are currently on the go in the Kruger National Park (KNP) that hope to shed light on some of the important issues that surround the whole elephant management question in the park. The design and inception of the projects has been fast-tracked, as they look at key issues that were identified for further investigation at a meeting held at Luiperdskloof last March.
At this meeting, several noted scientists and Sanparks role players got together to discuss the status of current scientific knowledge about elephants and their effects on biodiversity and how this affects park management.
The three projects are designed to fill holes in the existing knowledge database and are inter-related. They also tie in with another long-term suite of projects that is based in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve bordering Kruger, Tembo - The Elephant Movements and Bio-Economic Optimality Programme.
The three projects, some of which started late last year and some of which are just getting off the ground currently, look at how Kruger's elephants roam about in their home areas, how this is connected to what food is available in the area, how they actually feed on plants, and the impact this is having on woody vegetation.
What impacts elephants are currently having on the park's big trees is a major question that the research hopes to answer.
Much of the work relies on vegetation surveys, but studies will also be made on elephants directly, using tracking collars and people watching the elephants as they roam around. The vegetation monitoring looks at the types of tree species or grasses that grow in an area, their size, shape and the relative proportions of each species, and how this changes over time. The project's surveys will take an intensive look at selected sites, seeing how they change over the years as a result of browsing.
They will also consider how the availability of artificial water points affects this, along with the influence of fire and other browsers. This fieldwork links in with vegetation monitoring that is routinely done in the park by section rangers and other ongoing research projects that use vegetation monitoring, but new data will also be collected to tie in with this research.
The study will initially focus on the Orpen-Satara-Nwanedzi area of the park, but will be expanded later.
While one study hopes to establish what effect elephants are having on woody vegetation, the other wants to develop a method for monitoring this in future to help guide park management. At this time, the development of the monitoring method is taking the starting point of recording data from numerous five kilometre long transects, in the Orpen-Satara-Nwanedzi area and the Pretoriuskop-Skukuza-Lower Sabie area.
This is due to begin next month. The transects will be made at right angles to major riverlines, and the researchers will note down the GPS Coordinates of every single tree taller than five metres within a certain distance of the transect line.
The transects hope to pass through the vegetation monitoring plots from the other project. For each tree, the researchers will measure elephant use (pushed over, debarked or browsed trees), other browsing such as giraffe, if other herbivores are using pushedover trees, any impact of fire, any impact of drought or indications of infection, termite infestation and presence or absence of any birds' nests, especially raptor nests.
The importance of this project is indicated by the fact that it will be carried out by two scientists who already have their doctorates, and who can determine along the way if the method is working or if it needs modification.
Elephants will also be collared and observed in the Orpen-Satara-Nwanedzi and Pretoriuskop-Skukuza-Lower Sabie area that the transects run through. Coupling data from elephant monitoring with data from vegetation monitoring will help create a clearer picture of elephant impacts.
Two sets of six collars will be used, which will record the GPS location of individual animals every half hour. The collars have a projected life of two years. Collared female elephants will each belong to a family group that fits into a larger elephant clan structure.
Both collared and other elephants in their group will be intensively monitored by researchers that are already experienced at watching elephants for scientific purposes. One of these researchers is Audrey Delsink, who has been heading up the elephant immuno-contraception programme on Makalali Private Game Reserve.
Makalali is home to the longest running elephant immuno-contraception project ever carried out on free-ranging elephants. Audrey has been watching Makalali's 70 elephants intensively for the last five years, to see if there have been any social changes in the elephant society that could be related to the contraception.
For the purposes of the study in Kruger, each time that an elephant is sighted in the study area, Audrey will have to record its location, the surrounding habitat, the age and sex of other elephants in the group, check its identity from a photo identikit, and the general behaviour of the group.
Other observations will be carried out on selected individuals in a group, who will be followed continuously for a period of time. Data will be collected on the distance the elephant moves, distance moved, reason for moving, feeding behaviour (tree species, type of browse (bark, leaf etc), bite size, interval between bites, proportion of tree taken per bite, proportion of tree eaten before moving on.
Observations will also be made for 15 minutes at a time, where feeding, moving, social, resting and other behaviours will be recorded every minute. By knowing individuals in a group and seeing how the animals relate to each other, calving interval can be determined by estimating the ages between the different calves a mother elephant associates with.
The project will also collect dung samples, that will be pickled in vinegar, frozen and shipped to America for stress hormone (cortisol) analysis.
The dung will also be analysed for the ratio of woody plants to grasses. Stress hormone analysis will be linked to how the female groups relate to each other in their clans, and environmental conditions like drought. Although some elephants have been collared for this part of the project for several months now, two more elephants must still be collared. Audrey's observations have also only just begun this month.
The projects are being run through the Amarula Elephant Research Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which is an official research unit of the university established through a R3 million donation from Distell (makers of Amarula Cream Liqueur). The unit has done considerable research on the Pilanesberg elephants over the years.
By Melissa Wray