The Elephant—and other Animals—In the “Room”
A drive along the riverfront in Chobe National Park during the dry season is a spectacle to behold. Considered the “elephant capital of Africa,” a plethora of pachyderms converges along the river, numbering hundreds to thousands on any given day. The first glimpse of the gleaming aqua river winding its way through sandy terrain is breathtaking.
Adjacent to the small, bustling town of Kasane, a panoramic vista spans a deep valley through the park, which is home to an immense diversity of wildlife, including impala, baboon, hippo, crocodile, buffalo, waterbuck, lechwe, puku, kudu, sable, giraffe, elephant, and warthog. Chobe is also an excellent venue for birding safaris with tracts of hundreds of mixed waterfowl and over 460 bird species recorded in the park. Driving through the western entrance in the afternoon, the first view from atop the ridge is of wide floodplains dotted with thousands of Burchell’s zebra and massive herds of buffalo grazing.
For a wildlife ecologist, it is an accessible paradise, providing the opportunity to study a vast array of species and their natural environment. I decided Chobe was an ideal location for my focal area during my Ph.D. studies on elephant ecology. However, like most researchers, the more I learned, I realized the more questions had to be answered. Although plenty of research has been conducted in the region, I was surprised to learn that some of the large, keystone herbivore species had been previously ignored.
With the success of the elephant research monitoring program and the results from our aerial survey wildlife counts, the Botswana government realized that the fundamental key to effective wildlife conservation and management is long-term, science-based research. We were fortunate that the government granted Elephants Without Borders (EWB) a research permit to study the population status and spatial ecology of large herbivores in northern Botswana. Thus, with support from San Diego Zoo Global, EWB’s Large Herbivore Ecology Program began, now the first difficult task was where to focus….
We began the Large Herbivore Ecology Program by deploying GPS monitoring collars on buffalo, giraffe, sable, lechwe, wildebeest and zebra, focusing in two large study sites: Chobe National Park and the contrasting habitat of the Okavango Delta. Within the delta, in the NG26 concession, known as the “Abu” concession, we have opened EWB’s Conservation Ecology Research Station.
The program now includes Botswana’s first giraffe ecology research study to examine giraffe spatial ecology and use of the landscape through analysis of home range, seasonal movements, habitat use, and preferences.
Lechwe are being monitored to address possible reasons for their population declines in the delta, by examining patterns in flooding regimes, vegetation structure, and other herbivore populations.
High migratory species, such as wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo, have shown declines in wild populations. Land use, habitat fragmentation, vegetation changes, drought effects, veterinary fences, fires, and poaching have been cited as contributing factors to the wildlife declines. So, we started to monitor these specific species’ movements and their choice of habitat to possibly find solutions to their negative population trends.
For zebra populations, we realized there was a gap in research within the country and no one had tried to address the Chobe population specifically. Finding out just how and when these migrating animals move in and out of Chobe is an important aspect of conserving this important river ecosystem. We monitored the year’s full cycle, and it was revealed what may possibly be the longest trans-boundary mammal migration in southern Africa: a zebra dispersal between the Chobe River floodplains to Nxai Pan, which is remarkably 260 kilometres south!
The research constitutes a major conservation finding at a time when long distance movements are being compromised around the world. The findings could assist government planners and policy-makers in preserving migratory corridors, which are becoming more and more crucial to safeguarding large populations of wildlife.
This is only the beginning to try and answer so many questions. However, does it come at a time when it might be too late? What amazes and often saddens me is that throughout this research, I realize really how little we know about the wonderful wildlife we share the space with on this planet. If we don’t act swiftly and with laser focus, we could lose entire species altogether. But still, I must reiterate the motto once told to me by one of my esteemed mentors, Dr. John Hanks: “Listen, learn, improvise, adapt, and overcome, but above all remain optimistic and enthusiastic.” With that, so much is possible.
Mike Chase, Ph.D., Henderson Endowed Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow,
Elephants Without Borders