Following African elephant trails to approach conservation differently

August 31, 2020

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Elephant trails may lead the way to better conservation approaches.

"Think of elephants as engineers of the forests," said Melissa J. Remis, professor and head of anthropology at Purdue University, who is best known for her work in ecology and behavior of western gorillas and their ecosystems. "Elephants shape the landscape in many ways that benefit humans. We're talking thousands of miles of trails. If we think about the loss of elephants over time, then we will see the forest structure change and human activities also would shift."

These massive creatures trample thick vegetation through dense forests in the Central African Republic's Congo Basin as they move from the forests' fruit trees to more open water sources where they hydrate, bathe and socialize. African forest elephants, highly sociable animals, travel in small family groups to meet others at these muddy water sources, which are full of rich minerals that they can't find in the forests. By clearing routes to these destinations, elephants have created a very complex network of roads that residents, tourists, scientists and loggers still use today. If elephant populations decline, the forest grows over the trails.

"The fabric and way of life of local communities, and even for the industries and conservation organizations that exist in African forests, have largely been shaped by elephant landscape design," said Carolyn A. Jost Robinson, a former Purdue doctoral student and current visiting scholar who also is director of sociocultural research and engagement at the nonprofit Chengeta Wildlife. "People rely on these elephant highways, and they also are invaluable at understanding and explaining the networks."

Remis and Jost Robinson focus on these massive trail networks and the ecosystem and local foraging community, called the BaAka, as they evaluate how biological anthropology plays a role in conservation. Their research is specific to the elephant trails leading to Dzanga Saline, a famous forest clearing with a large water source in the Congo area. Their findings are published online in American Anthropologist.

"Anthropologists are very famous for critiquing conservation but not always for coming up with effective solutions," Remis said. "The area of conservation is dominated by biological sciences, and you can't make change just tending to ecosystems. Conservation messages focus on flagship species, like elephants, and rarely do they consider the knowledge or needs of people relying on or living with those species. Attention on both could help further conservation and human rights issues."

Framing the big picture

More than 30 years ago, Purdue University's Melissa Remis visited the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas for the first time as a biological anthropologist to study gorillas. She became known as the gorilla lady as she visited the site dozens of times. Her fieldwork showed her that to know and study the gorillas, she had to learn about the forest and other wildlife from the local residents who share the land for food, shelter and medicines. Now Remis' work focuses on the big picture - how the effects of conservation affect people, and what role biological anthropology can play.

"We're broadening the conversation about conservation," said Jost Robinson, who became known as the child of the gorilla lady by local residents at their African research site. "When you see a picture in a magazine story about ivory trafficking and elephant hunting, it is unlikely that the article will capture the entire experience of the community, as well as tourists, researchers and companies with local interests. As part of this change - whether you want to talk about climate change, forest access or wildlife protection - these relationships have evolved and taken on new shapes. We looked back on years of data and stories and realized there was a story to tell."

By focusing on the local BaAka community, especially the hunters known as tuma, the scientists capture information from local residents about interaction and living with elephants that is usually not a part of conservation plans.

"We want this to be a model for showing how to get additional insights when addressing how to conserve forests in better collaboration with those people who rely on them for cultural and material sustenance," Remis said. "Being able to tell their stories and share their deep knowledge about the area, and what closing off an elephant trail or part of the forest can due to cut off access to food, medicines or social networks, is usually not part of the conservation approach. We need to hear the BaAka in their own words."
-end-
This work was funded by the Clifford B. Kinley Trust and College of Liberal Arts.

ABSTRACT

Elephants Hunters and Others. Integrating Biological Anthropology and Multispecies Ethnography in a Conservation Zone
Melissa J. Remis and Carolyn A. Jost Robinson
DOI: 10.1111/aman.13414

Popular and scholarly accounts lament the demise of African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the loss of biodiversity across the Congo Basin, but there has been less appreciation of the consequences of restricted forest access for human communities in conservation contexts. We demonstrate the usefulness of biological anthropology in combination with multispecies ethnography for anchoring the futures of BaAka foragers and African forest elephants. Tuma elephant hunters have long negotiated their communities' relationships with elephants and others who have relied on the BaAka to navigate the forest. Tracing multispecies interactions along a transnational network of elephant trails (bembo) helps us understand the ways that elephants have shaped forest structure and the fabric of existence for tuma and others. Bembo facilitate movement across watersheds and may prove a critical tool in the development of culturally relevant conversation practices.

Purdue University

Related Conservation Articles from Brightsurf:

New guide on using drones for conservation
Drones are a powerful tool for conservation - but they should only be used after careful consideration and planning, according to a new report.

Elephant genetics guide conservation
A large-scale study of African elephant genetics in Tanzania reveals the history of elephant populations, how they interact, and what areas may be critical to conserve in order to preserve genetic diversity of the species.

Measuring the true cost of conservation
BU Professor created the first high-resolution map of land value in the United states.

Environmental groups moving beyond conservation
Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become powerful voices in world environmental politics, little is known of the global picture of this sector.

Hunting for the next generation of conservation stewards
Wildlife ecology students become the professionals responsible for managing the biodiversity of natural systems for species conservation.

Conservation research on lynx
Scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and the Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (Leibniz-FMP) discovered that selected anti-oxidative enzymes, especially the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD2), may play an important role to maintain the unusual longevity of the corpus luteum in lynxes.

New 'umbrella' species would massively improve conservation
The protection of Australia's threatened species could be improved by a factor of seven, if more efficient 'umbrella' species were prioritised for protection, according to University of Queensland research.

Trashed farmland could be a conservation treasure
Low-productivity agricultural land could be transformed into millions of hectares of conservation reserve across the world, according to University of Queensland-led research.

Bats in attics might be necessary for conservation
Researchers investigate and describe the conservation importance of buildings relative to natural, alternative roosts for little brown bats in Yellowstone National Park.

Applying biodiversity conservation research in practice
One million species are threatened with extinction, many of them already in the coming decades.

Read More: Conservation News and Conservation Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.