African elephant trails can help shape better conservation plans

When African elephants travel from one destination to another, they typically create highly complex routes on their way, shaping the landscape and thus the fabric and way of life of many local communities. Understanding how these massive creatures affect the dynamics of local life may lead the way to better conservation approaches, according to a recent report.

In the Central African Republic’s Congo Basin these animals trample thick vegetation through dense forests as they move from the forests’ fruit trees to more open water sources, where they hydrate, bathe, and socialize.

African forest elephants, highly sociable animals, travel in small family groups to meet others at these muddy water sources, which are full of rich minerals that they can’t find in the forests.

By clearing routes to these destinations, elephants have created a very complex network of roads that residents, tourists, scientists, and loggers still use today. If elephant populations decline, the forest grows over the trails, significantly affecting the local communities.

“Think of elephants as engineers of the forests,” says Melissa J. Remis, the corresponding author of the paper. “Elephants shape the landscape in many ways that benefit humans. We’re talking thousands of miles of trails. If we think about the loss of elephants over time, then we will see the forest structure change, and human activities also would shift.”

To investigate the dynamics between these massive trail networks, the ecosystem, and the way of life of local communities, the researchers focused on elephant trails leading to Dzanga Saline, a famous forest clearing with a large water source in the Congo area.

By focusing on the local BaAka community, especially the hunters are known as tuma, the scientists captured information from local residents about interaction and living with elephants that are usually not a part of conservation plans. This analysis offered a comprehensive overview of the relationship between the animals and the local communities and where conservationists should intervene most in order to benefit the environment and the people in the area.

“We want this to be a model for showing how to get additional insights when addressing how to conserve forests in better collaboration with those people who rely on them for cultural and material sustenance,” Remis says.

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