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Mali's Gourma Elephants Cover Largest Migration Range

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Dec 13, 2012 07:26 AM EST
Elephant
Mali elephant wearing a GPS collar. (Photo : Chiyulu Smith/ The University of British Columbia)

Endangered African elephants in the Sahara desert have recorded the largest migration among other elephants, finds a new study.

Researchers from University of British Columbia, Canada and Oxford University, U.K., tracked the movements of Gourma elephants in Mali's northern region over a period of two years, using Global Positioning System (GPS) collars.

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These elephants are touted to be the world's toughest elephants, as they endure tough conditions in the desert where there is water shortage and the temperature exceeds over 122 Fahrenheit.

The research team found that the desert-adapted elephants travel across 12,355 square miles (32,000 square kilometers) in search of food and water. This is the largest area ever recorded for any elephant species.

Experts found that the elephants depend on a network of pathways, including a critical sandstone passage known as "la Porte des Elephants." They spend some time in several key places during their migration. The study has identified 10 hot spots which are essential for the elephants' survival. Researchers suggest that these spots need to be protected for conservation purposes.

Gourma elephants have peacefully coexisted with the local Touareg, Fuhlani and Dogon people, but the human-elephant conflict over space and resources is significantly increasing, as local people are moving from pastoralism (raising livestock) to agriculture settlements.

A surprising find of the study was that the male and female elephants were observed sharing only a quarter of their ranges.

"We think the difference is partly because of their tolerances towards people," lead researcher Jake Wall, from The University of British Columbia, said in a statement. "Bulls generally take more risks and occupy areas that have higher human densities. They also have varying food strategies and we think that differences in the areas they occupy might be because of different vegetation types in those areas."

These elephants travel similar distances covered by their East and Southern African relatives, but their movements are spread over an area that is 150 percent larger those elephants in Namibia, and 29 percent larger than elephants in Botswana. Elephants carry on with this epic migration as a result of water and food scarcity in the region.

Researchers suggest that the elephants may be forced to expand their migration routes further, in case food availability and other resources become scarcer.

Although the Gourma elephants have been able to survive high temperatures and drought, they are facing an increased risk as a result of armed conflicts between government forces and Touareg rebels in Mali, said the researchers.

They have urged for better conservation efforts to protect the endangered species, which is already down to 350 elephants owing to factors like hunting, drought and climate change.

The findings of the study will appear in January's edition of Biological Conservation.

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