Gorongosa National Park, in Sofala Province, Mozambique, is the location of ElephantVoices' latest elephant monitoring and conservation project. In 2011 ElephantVoices was invited to Gorongosa to assess the elephants and to begin a process of habituation so that encounters between elephants and visitors can be peaceful. Habituating elephants to tourist vehicles is important because without income earned from visitors, this beautiful, biodiverse habitat cannot be protected. With today's pressure on natural resources, and ivory poaching at a new peak, ensuring the survival of Gorongosa is imperative.
Understanding and respecting the signals of elephants
In 1972 Gorongosa was home to over 2000 elephants, but between 1977 and 1992 civil conflict took the lives of most of these individuals. Elephant meat was used to fed soldiers and ivory was sold for the purchase of arms and ammunition. By the time peace was restored less than 200 individuals remained. Today, thanks to intervention by the Mozambican Government and the Gorongosa Restoration Project, there are roughly 300-400 elephants in Gorongosa, and their numbers are gradually increasing. Yet, the survivors haven't forgotten their gruesome experiences and they are still, understandably, wary of people and they continue to avoid large areas of the national park.
We habituate elephants to vehicles by approaching them slowly and turning off the car engine at the first signs of fear or aggression. By doing so we show them that we understand and respect their signals, that we mean them no harm and that we are not afraid of their bravado.
Elephants are the quintessential drama queens; they revel in making a big deal about almost anything. And they display some of the most dramatic and terrifying defensive behavior. This makes for good television and some of our initial encounters with elephants in Gorongosa were filmed for National Geographic's documentary, War Elephants. It is fair to say that the editing of the film overdramatized our interactions for the TV audience. In reality we met very normal elephants behaving much as we expected them to. And the many elephants that we met on more than one occasion quickly learned that we did not represent a threat.
Gorongosa Elephants Who's Who & WhereaboutsIn October 2012 we began working with the Gorongosa elephants in earnest. We are using a customized version of the Who's Who & Whereabouts databases developed by ElephantVoices for our Mara elephant conservation initiative, Elephant Partners.
With these tools we register each elephant and collect observations in a systematic and efficient way. In collaboration with the Gorongosa Restoration Project and the National Park management we may, in time, make the Gorongosa Elephants Who's Who & Whereabouts Databases available to the public to explore, learn from and contribute to.
Each elephant in a population is an important individual and we are identifying and registering elephants, one by one, and populating the Gorongosa Who's Who Database with photographs, physiognomic characteristics, and life history information. Along the way we are learning who is fearful, who is aggressive and we are spending extra time with these individuals to build their trust.
As we accumulate knowledge of individuals and their families, we are working toward estimating the size and structure of the population. For example, what proportion of the population is male and female, young and old? Since this population has come through a period of extreme ivory poaching, a large portion of the population is tuskless. How many tuskless elephants are there? What are their ages and what does demographic pattern reflect about their past and mean for their future survival?
More knowledge as basis for better protection
Observations of individuals and families are being uploaded to the Gorongosa Whereabouts Database so that we can understand the patterns that define this population, allowing management to better protect them. For example, we need to know who spends time with whom, where they go, when and why.
As we get to know the elephants we will also be training rangers and guides how to collect elephant data and how to approach elephants, with both the interest of people and elephants being a priority. Based on what we learn, we will be engaging with other Gorongosa research scientists and the management team to determine possible future elephant studies and conservation strategies.