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Elephants hide by day, forage at night to evade poachers

September 14, 2017

PARIS: Like escaped convicts, elephants in eastern Africa have learned to travel at night and hide during the day to avoid poachers who are hunting tuskers into extinction, researchers reported on Wednesday.

Normally elephants forage for food and migrate in daylight, while resting under cover of darkness. But a sharp increase in illegal hunting driven by the global trade in ivory has forced the massive land mammals — against their nature — to upend their usual habits.

“As most poaching occurs during the daytime, their transition to nocturnal behaviour appears to be a direct result of prevailing poaching levels,” said Festus Ihwagi, a researcher at the University of Twente in The Netherlands.

In an upcoming study, Ihwagi details his findings, based on data gathered from 60 elephants in northern Kenya tracked with GPS devices for up to three years during the period 2002 to 2012.

Working with the NGO Save the Elephants, which has fitted more than 100 of the animals with GPS collars, Ihwagi monitored the movements of 28 females and 32 males in and around the Laikipa-Samburu ecosystem.

“Simultaneous elephant tracking and monitoring of causes of death presented a perfect ‘natural laboratory’,” said Ihwagi. The night-time movements of the elephants increased significantly in sync with poaching levels, especially for females.

In high-danger zones, females reduced daytime activity by about 50 per cent on average compared to low-danger zones, Ihwagi said. Changing their behaviour in this way may help keep elephants alive in the short run, but could have long term implications for their survival, he added.

“For mothers with very young calves, the risk of predation of the calves by lions or hyenas would be higher at night,” Ihwagi said. “For the mature elephants, it implies an alteration of their normal social life.”

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the number of African elephants has fallen by around 111,000 to 415,000 over the past decade. The killing shows no sign of abating with around 30,000 elephants slaughtered for their ivory every year, mainly to satisfy demand in the Asian market for products coveted as a traditional medicine or as status symbols.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017