The elephant in the room — UI researchers work on human, elephant interactions in Mozambique.


Carly Scott, The Argonaut

Date Published

A 16-year civil war left the elephant population at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa, decimated.

University of Idaho graduate Paola Branco and mentor Ryan Long are seeking to revive the population. Over the last two years, Branco and Long have been involved in resolving human-elephant conflict in Mozambique.

Long had the idea for the project while completing a post-doctorate in Mozambique. Having recently received a position at UI, he had start-up funds to bring a student on board.

“We had the opportunity to initiate the project right away, without a large grant or anything,” Long said.

Long said Branco, formerly a veterinarian in Brazil, was the perfect fit for the project.

“The elephant population is being surrounded by communities of people, they eat their crops, and there are a lot of bad encounters between elephants and people,” Branco said.

The restoration of elephants is critical, Branco said, because they are a keystone species. A keystone species is something the rest of the ecosystem relies on and cannot live without, she said.

Long said one example of this is the fact that elephants are so big they often knock down trees. By doing this, they open up the grassland for other grazing organisms.

Branco said one of the major conflicts between humans and elephants is crop raiding. Crops are the only resources  for villagers and the elephants often consume it.

“Of course the elephants don’t know how they should behave. The crops are much tastier — they go and raid the crops,” she said.

Long said one of the first steps in the project was collecting accurate information about how big of an issue crop raiding is.

“By late spring, early summer next year, we’ll have a pretty good idea how big of a problem this actually is,” he said.

Armed with this information, Branco and Long said they will travel back to Mozambique this summer to try to implement some solutions.

Long said working with elephants poses unique challenges.

“The biggest challenge is a combination of funding and logistics. Doing hands-on research on a species as large as elephants is both really expensive and logistically difficult,” he said.

Branco and Long said they now have 12 collared elephants and can collect data on their behavior at half-hour increments

Though Long and Branco’s work is about elephants in Mozambique, Branco said elephant conservation is a worldwide problem.

“If we think about elephant populations as a whole species, the main threat for elephants is poaching,” she said.

Branco said the ivory trade is what mainly fuels poaching. Because elephants are so distant to many people, she said it is hard to get others to care about the problem.

“People don’t always correlate this beautiful piano with elephants being killed,” Branco said.

She is also working as part of a larger campaign called 96 Elephants, which is a Wildlife Conservation Society campaign. She said 96 elephants are killed every day — hence the name.

Branco said if people want to keep elephants alive and maintain the species, they need to be better educated about the issues.

“If people are willing to buy, there is always someone else willing to kill (an elephant),” she said.

Long said in Mozambique, ivory is not a motivator for elephant poaching. He said during the civil war, all of the elephants with large tusks were hunted. This left only elephants with little ivory in Gorongosa.

Branco said at the conclusion of the civil war in the 1990s, there were less than 100 elephants left in Gorongosa National Park. Now, she said they are nearing a population of 600.