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Managing heterogeneity in elephant distribution: interactions between elephant population density and surface-water availability

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Concerns over the ecological impacts of high African elephant Loxodonta africana densities suggest that it may be necessary to control their numbers locally, although the best management approach is still widely debated. Artificial water supply is believed to be a major cause of local overabundance, and could be used as a potential tool to regulate elephant distribution and impact across landscapes, but its effect on elephants at the population scale has never been studied.

We assessed how dry-season surface-water availability constrained the distribution of an entire elephant population, using aerial and waterhole census data from Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The study was initiated in 1986, when the population was released from culling. We studied how artificial waterholes, holding water throughout the dry season, and vegetation production, estimated from a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), influenced the long-term distribution of elephant densities. We also investigated how the elephant distribution responded to changes in population density and annual rainfall, a driver of surface-water availability.

Long-term dry-season elephant densities across the park tended to increase with vegetation production, and increased asymptotically with the density of artificial waterholes.

Since the culling stopped, dry-season elephant densities have increased in most areas of the park, except in areas of low vegetation production and low water availability. Interannual fluctuations in elephant distribution are linked to rainfall variability through its effect on surface-water availability. During dry years elephants concentrated in areas where artificial pumping maintained surface-water availability during the dry season.

During dry years elephant numbers at waterholes increased because of reduced surface-water availability, and elephants were distributed more evenly across waterholes, although active waterholes were unevenly distributed across the park.

Synthesis and applications. Surface-water availability drives the distribution and abundance of elephants within Hwange National Park, and therefore appears to be at the heart of the trade-off between elephant conservation and the extent of their impact on ecosystems. Artificial manipulation of surface water is one of the tools available for the management of elephant populations and should not be overlooked when considering options for controlling elephant numbers in places where they are considered to be overabundant.

Journal of Applied Ecology (2007) 44, 625 –633

doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2007.01300.x
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Keywords: Africa; Loxodonta africana; elephant impact; herbivore; landscape; management; rainfall; waterholes

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2007

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