Elephant Ecology

Everyone’s favourite animal! Well, some people’s worst nightmare too. The elephant is the largest land mammal, one of the most charismatic animals, one of the ‘Big 5’, and a keystone species – the list is endless. Some even go as far as disputing the idea that the lion is the king of the jungle and would prefer that the African Elephant be the almighty ruler.

This iconic, much loved, yet feared animal is the focus of my Master’s thesis.

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An elephant pulling down and breaking a branch while feeding in Lalibela Private Game Reserve.

Much of the Eastern Cape has undergone a shift in land use from pastoralism to game farming and game reserves in the last few decades. This, in turn, has led to the reintroduction of many of the larger charismatic species to these areas. However, much debate is focused around whether some of these species naturally resided here or whether they would have just passed through the region. Fortunately for us Zoologists, these debates offer us the perfect opportunities to study these reintroductions.

For my Masters, I’m taking full advantage of these disputes and investigating what impact elephants have on the Albany Thicket. Albany Thicket is a biome in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. It’s an evergreen, spiny vegetation type said to be impenetrable by early settlers, with the exception of paths forged by elephants. I can tell you one thing for sure; they definitely weren’t wrong about that.

My work focuses on the impact that these ecosystem bulldozers have on the Thicket ecosystem. The first part of my work looks into how elephants impact the thicket vegetation through their sheer size and feeding habits. The second part to this is how impacts to the vegetation may cause cascading impacts on other mammals in the thicket.

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