An update from the elephants

Continuing work from 2016 on land-use decisions by African elephants in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, PhD student Fiona Sach has been involved in fieldwork at five UK zoos, in the Kruger National Park and at the nearby Phalaborwa Mine in South Africa.

Project details

African elephants on land next to mine site

The working hypothesis for this project is that African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are being drawn towards a mining area just outside the Kruger National Park in South Africa due to the unique geochemistry of the area. Unfortunately, elephant incursion into the mine and nearby human settlements has resulted in human–elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and loss of income.

Why are the elephants attracted to the mine area?

Previous studies have suggested that the soil in areas surrounding the mine, and associated plant and elephant faecal samples, may be low in minerals such as phosphorus, causing a deficiency in the plants and driving the elephants to seek these minerals elsewhere. It is therefore thought that the elephants may be attracted to the mining area due to the mineral provision in the plants, soil and water.

It is hoped that the results of the project may help to inform key locations in the elephants' home range where mineral-supplemented forage or mineral licks may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of minerals, thereby reducing human–elephant conflict at the mine site.

UK zoo participation

Twenty zoo elephants at five UK zoos have participated in a pilot study to identify the best matrix for reflecting mineral levels in elephants. Results of this will inform data collection strategy in the Kruger and at the Phalaborwa mine. Samples were taken from the zoo elephants (including toenails, tail hair, blood plasma, faecals and urine); from the elephants' environment; from soil and water, and from all the food they consume within a day at each zoo. It is tremendously exciting to see these data from the UK zoos contributing directly to aid wild counterparts in South Africa. In parallel, the data will be used to advance the welfare of these phenomenal animals under human care.

Project partners

This unique, interdisciplinary project involves environmental geochemistry, plant science and animal health across a range of partners including:

Elephants within the Kruger National Park

Sample and data providers

The project is very fortunate to have access to banked blood and tail hair samples from the Kruger National Park BioBank, collected opportunistically from elephants within the Kruger National Park; banked tail hair, toenail and blood samples from collared elephants monitored by Elephants Alive (EA), and tracking data from seven animals collared by EA on the mine site. These data greatly inform elephant movement and thus the sampling strategy for environmental sampling in the area, as well as providing a baseline level for minerals in African elephants, which will in turn benefit captive elephants across the world.


Contact Michael Watts for more information.

See also
External links