The largest living land mammal, African elephants live in a wide variety of habitats providing there is sufficient water. They have complex social relationships with matriarchs leading family groups of 2 to 50 animals.
Tanzania harbours one of Africa’s most significant remaining elephant populations, the only larger population being found in Botswana. In 1976, numbers in Tanzania stood at 316,000, but major declines in the late 1980’s and especially since 2009, driven by an upsurge in the illegal trade in ivory, have decimated the population which today stands at roughly 45,000.
Historically, many of the countries significant elephant areas formed part of an elephant meta-population, with substantial dispersal between areas such as the Selous and northern Mozambique and Ruaha-Katavi and the north. Substantial habitat still exists in many areas, but improved understanding is needed to verify to what extent historical corridors remain viable and in use.
Conservation of Tanzania’s elephants is therefore focused on rapidly improving understanding related to elephant ranging so that improved protection can be promoted in both core areas as well as interlinking corridors. Where elephants come into contact with people, the mitigation of human-elephant conflict where possible is also an essential approach.
Well organized poaching for ivory is the principal threat facing elephant populations across much of Africa. The poachers have learned their trade in the Selous in recent years and have shifted operations to the Ruaha-Katavi landscape. There is concern that the same pressure may shift to populations in the north of the country. A response requires improved law enforcement; driven by sound intelligence and the effective prosecution of those arrested in all parts of the trafficking chain. Ultimately, the reduction in demand for ivory from countries including China is needed if Africa’s elephants are to recover their numbers.
WCS works in two critical elephant landscapes in Tanzania: Ruaha-Katavi and Tarangire.
The 20,226km2 Ruaha National Park is Africa’s largest park and together with Katavi National Park and a number of contiguous Game Reserves and other protected areas, constitutes the focus of WCS’ Ruaha-Katavi Landscape Program. Our work has four main components; to improve the engagement of local communities in conservation through the auspices of the ‘Wildlife Management Area’ approach; establishing ways of enhancing the management/protection of key species at a landscape level, fuelling conservation commitment and actions through harnessing tourism and other appropriate incomes and tackling the elephant crisis head on through supporting improved law enforcement (planning, delivery, coordination and monitoring), better elephant monitoring and engagement with key decision makers and partners who can influence their plight.
The Tarangire Elephant Project team has been studying the elephants in the Tarangire Ecosystem since 1993 and has photo-identified over 1,000 individuals, making this one of the largest elephant demography databases in Africa. Over the years, our research has focused on three main areas; understanding the behaviour, demography and genetics of the northern sub-population of elephants in Tarangire; evaluating the level of human-elephant conflict in the ecosystem and developing methods of ameliorating the problems; investigating elephant movement patterns throughout the ecosystem and working to protect the key elephant migration corridors. Our work continues in all of these areas and the project now has full time Tanzanian scientists carrying out research on this population.