Elephant Damage, DNA, and Dung

Article excerpt

When Teddy Roosevelt was President, as many as 10 million elephants roamed sub-Saharan Africa. By 1989, however, fewer than 500,000 elephants remained in a tiny fraction of their former range. That year, countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to list elephants as an Appendix I species, curtailing unregulated commerce in ivory. Also in 1989, the U.S. Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act and established the African Elephant Conservation Fund, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

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African elephant numbers have recovered in some countries, but are declining in others due to poaching, habitat loss, and conflicts with people. Today, an estimated 600,000 elephants remain in Africa. In western Africa, elephants are severely imperiled, surviving only in small populations within isolated habitat remnants.

Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in central Africa continue to lose ground to logging and poaching for their ivory and meat. By contrast, some populations of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) in southern Africa are steadily increasing within confined protected areas, but they lack the space to migrate or shift their range in response to needs for food and water. In some parts of eastern Africa, elephants still occur outside of protected areas, but throughout the continent, conflict between elephants and local people is on the rise, particularly as more land is converted to agriculture.

From 2004 to 2008, the Wildlife Without Borders-African Elephant Conservation Fund (WWB-AFECF) provided $6.5 million to 137 projects, leveraging over $16 million in matching funds from other donors. More conservationists from Africa and elsewhere seek funds from the FWS for work in Africa every year, but we are able to support only about one-third of the requests. However, the conservation dollar goes a long way in Africa, and each year our grantees achieve amazing success with relatively little money. The WWBAFECF prioritizes projects that address illegal hunting, illegal trade, protected area management, capacity building within range states, community-based conservation, and reducing humanelephant conflicts.

The problem

Like any clever animal, elephants are attracted to free, tasty food. Ripening crops make an easy and nutritious meal, but unwanted forays lead to conflict between farmers and elephants. A single elephant can eat a family's entire annual harvest in one night. Farmers often resort to chasing or shooting at elephants entering their fields, which too often has tragic results for both. Numerous people are killed each year attempting to defend their harvest, and vast numbers of elephants are killed while "raiding" a crop or in retaliation for raiding by other elephants.

Communities are desperately seeking solutions to prevent or minimize losses of crops to elephants and other wildlife. In order to do this, they need to understand how crop-raiding occurs. Is the problem limited to certain "problem elephants" or "rogues," or will all elephants with acute senses be tempted to invade fields and eat what they can?

What one FWS grantee is doing to help

Patrick Chiyo, a Ugandan graduate student working with Dr. …