Elephants remember fences, SA research finds

2013-10-09 13:00
An elephant participates in a test involving food rewards that are placed on a platform on the ground connected to a rope. (Joshua M Plotnik, AP, file)

An elephant participates in a test involving food rewards that are placed on a platform on the ground connected to a rope. (Joshua M Plotnik, AP, file)

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Durban - Research conducted by UKZN scientists on elephants has shed new light on the already incredible memory that the mammals are renowned for.

The ongoing project, which started in 2002, used GPS devices to determine where and when elephants moved in the Kruger National Park.

The amazing results show that elephants are able to memorise where kilometres of fencing have been laid out and to deliberately avoid the obstacles.

Even when the fence was removed, the elephants were so cautious that it took them a year before they ventured across the boundary line.

The researchers also used simulated lion roars to determine that older elephants were more in tune to their sense of danger - reacting differently to the roar of one lion as opposed to a pride.

The research also showed that elephants travelled faster and over a greater distance during the rainy season and conserved their energy during the dry months.

GPS devices

The elephant, one of the largest and most intelligent mammals on Earth, has been the focus of recent studies run by Professor Rob Slotow of the School of Life Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s College of Agriculture.

The Amarula Elephant Research Programme (Aerp) has been on the go since 2002 and is funded by the not-for-profit Amarula Trust.

To better understand their ranging behaviour, the Aerp collars elephants it studies, using GPS devices that automatically record the location of each animal every 30 minutes. This gives them high-resolution, accurate readings of movements of the elephants in real time.

According to Slotow, a surprising trait determined through the research was that elephants would avoid going near fences.

"They stay away from the fences by up to 2.5km in the dry season and over 4km in the wet season. This is probably because the elephants associate the boundary of the reserve with risk," said Slotow.

"We have also found that when a reserve is increased in size by dropping a fence, it takes up to a year for the elephants to move past where the fence had been, and to use the new area. Female elephants especially are slower to move into new areas, probably because they are more sensitive to risk as far as the young animals in the herd are concerned."

One of the programme's most exciting research projects has involved observing the response of elephants to recordings of lions roaring, says Slotow.

"The study has shown that young matriarchs under the age of 40 responded the same to the sound of male and female roars and also to recordings of one or more lion roaring at a time. Older, more experienced matriarchs at the age of 60 and more, however, would react more strongly to the sound of multiple male roars. This is because they find groups of lions more dangerous than a single lion," he said.
Read more on:    durban  |  animals

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