Science - September 16, 2004

Ecologists predict elephant routes

The tropical ecologists at the Resource Ecology group want to predict where and when elephants end up in agricultural areas in and around the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Elephants are capable of causing a lot of damage in the area. ‘One elephant can ruin up to four hectares of maize in a day,’ tells Professor Herbert Prins of the Resource Ecology group. ‘You are allowed to shoot them, but then you only get the price of the meat. If you can predict where the elephants are going to go, you can auction the animals in advance to international hunters through the internet. That increases the financial value of an elephant.’

The research has been divided up into thirty sub-projects. On one thirty-hectare field – according to the researchers the biggest manure experiment ever – the scientists will look at the influence of the animals’ manure on the savannah vegetation. Another researcher will develop a model that maps the distribution of the elephants. And the elephants’ food preferences will be examined as well as their land use. An economist will look at how the incomes from auctioned elephants can contribute best to the local economy.

The Wageningen ecologists will collaborate with ITC in Enschede, ecologists from the University of Natal and colleagues in the Mathematical and Statistical Models group in Wageningen. The research consortium has a grant of 750,000 euros from Wotro, the tropical part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. This will be used to finance five South African and two Dutch