North Carolina Zoo has participated in elephant conservation in West Africa since 1998. One of the primary tools we use to protect the region’s elephants is satellite tracking collars. Once fitted with the special collars, elephant location data can be sent to any internet-connected computer in the world, from where data can be analyzed to mitigate human-elephant conflict, delineate new protected areas utilized by elephants, and increase our knowledge of elephant ecology. We are also actively involved in protecting Nigeria’s last elephant population by refining strategies to stop ivory poachers in their tracks.
Threatened with Extinction
Elephants across the world are increasingly threated by habitat loss as expanding human activities push these magnificent creatures out of their historical safe havens in search of food, water, mates, and safety. To make matters worse, poaching has also been escalating over the past few decades as the international demand for ivory has increased. Consequently, populations of wild elephants have declined so drastically that they could go extinct in the wild within the next generation if current trends hold. The future of elephants depends on securing their habitat, reducing conflict with people, and preventing killing by poachers.
Helping People in Cameroon Live with Elephants
The North Carolina Zoo’s very first field conservation program, initiated in 1998, focused on elephants in and around northern Cameroon’s Waza National Park. During the region’s dry season, the Park’s elephants sometimes venture beyond the park boundaries to look for food. This behaviour, which can threaten human lives and property, often results in retaliatory killings of elephants, followed by ill feelings towards conservation activities and rangers when local farmers are then accused of killing protected animals.
To improve the livelihoods and safety of local people and protect the elephants, the Zoo partnered with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and local government agencies in Cameroon to better understand the movements and habitat requirements of Waza’s elephants. This was accomplished by attaching satellite-tracking collars onto elephants from different herds in the region. This real-time tracking was then used as an early-warning system which enabled rangers to redirect wandering elephants back into the Park before they could come into conflict with the local people.
This project proved so successful that in the following years it was replicated in and around eight additional Cameroonian national parks. In total more than 50 elephants have already been collared. This project is expanding to this day; just in mid-2018, veterinarians from the Zoo visited Côte d’Ivoire for the first time, where they collared two elephants to track their movements. Zoo staff continue to monitor the collared animals and will visit the region again soon to continue protecting its elephants as well as its people.
Using Tracking Data to Delineate Park Boundaries
While the primary purpose of collaring elephants is to mitigate conflict with humans, the movement data obtained can also provide elephant biologists a better understanding into elephant behaviour. For example, analysing elephant movements on Mount Cameroon enabled Zoo staff to identify which areas they prefer to forage in, and which areas they use as migration routes. This information was subsequently used to delineate the boundaries of the newly established Mount Cameroon National Park. Securing areas critical to elephant survival reduces chances that human activities would push those elephants from their safe havens, which in turn reduce the need for those elephants to raid nearby farmland. This project illustrates solutions whereby humans and wildlife can share the land safely.
Saving Nigeria’s Last Bush Elephant Population
Since 2013, the North Carolina Zoo has partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Nigeria to protect Nigeria’s last remaining bush elephant population which lives in Yankari Game Reserve. Yankari is completely surrounded by agricultural development, which puts multiple pressures on conservation activities in the area. Prominently, like in Cameroon, during the region’s dry season elephants may leave Yankari to raid local farms. To reduce these kinds of conflicts, the Zoo has replicated our efforts in Cameroon—tracking elephant’s movements and redirecting wandering elephants back to safety—also around Yankari.
In addition to mitigating human-elephant conflict, the North Carolina Zoo has also been helping the region’s conservation authorities understand how many elephants are left. In the recent past the reserve had about 300 elephants in multiple herds. But estimates in the late 2000s, obtained from analyzing movement and patrol data, suggested that a single herd of elephants numbering less than 100 individuals was left in the reserve. An aerial survey of Yankari’s elephants in 2011, organized and coordinated by the Zoo, confirmed this estimate, and incited the Zoo to also get more involved in anti-poaching activities in the park.
Using SMART technology which the North Carolina Zoo helped develop, the Zoo has played a pivotal role in refining anti-poaching strategies at Yankari Game Reserve. The Zoo accomplished this by holding several workshops in Yankari to train rangers how to collect information on threats to wildlife on SMART-enabled devices. Collecting the data using the SMART system allowed Yankari’s park managers to analyze patrol data quicker, and to make better informed decisions about how best to protect the reserve’s wildlife. In addition, tagged elephants could be more easily monitored by rangers to ensure the safety of the herd. These activities have made a huge impact; no poached elephant carcasses have been found at Yankari since May 2015. Improved anti-poaching patrols also benefit other animals—populations of most other large mammals at Yankari are also now recovering. With reduced poaching and recovering wildlife populations, levels of ranger morale and discipline has improved, and tourists also leave more satisfied.
Partners: Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), various local government agencies