Clever elephants have learned to avoid roads

02 November 2008


Forest elephants living in West Africa's Congo Basin have learned to avoid roads probably because they realise that where there are roads there are poachers with guns.

That's according to a study published in the online journal Plos ONE, led by Stephen Blake from the Wildlife conservation Society. Blake and his team have shown that by avoiding roads elephants are confining themselves to smaller and smaller patches of habitat which could spell even more trouble for this endangered species.

ElephantThe research team put collars on 28 elephants with Global positioning tracking systems and followed their movements through the forests of the Congo Basin. It became clear to them that elephants avoid roadways even in areas where poachers are kept out. During the whole study only a single elephant was recorded crossing a road and, when it did, it dashed across at 14 times its normal pace.

We might assume that if intelligent elephants have learned to avoid roads and poachers then this is a good thing because fewer of them will be shot.

But the problem is that the current book in road building is carving up the remaining areas of intact forest and the areas that elephants live in are contracting. It may be that elephant herds will not be able to find all the food and resources they need to survive.

There could even be a knock-on effect on the forest ecosystems since it is thought that when elephants roam large areas they play an important role in seed dispersal. This could be disrupted if they only live in small, separate patches of forest.

The good news is the research team have suggested that some relatively simple and cheap planning measures could be introduced that would make a real difference for the elephants. By planning exactly where roads go and trying to keep intact areas of forest that are as large as possible we should be able to minimise how much elephants continue to be confined by their fear of roads.


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