Czech zoologists get involved in efforts to save Tanzanian elephant population

Zoologists from the Dvůr Králové Safari Park have started researching elephants in the Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. One of the zoo’s main missions is protecting endangered and threatened wildlife species directly in their natural habitats, and this is precisely the aim of their research in Tanzania. Millions of elephants once lived throughout Africa, but today, they only number around 350,000. Ivory poachers kill eight percent of the elephant population every year, but as Michal Šťastný from the Department of Communication and International Projects at Safari Park Dvůr Králové told me, it is not only poaching that threatens the African elephants.

The Dvůr Králové Safari Park has been collaborating with Tanzania's Mkomazi Park for over 15 years. Why do you collaborate with this park and why is the collaboration important?

Photo: Safari Park Dvůr Králové

"We have always worked closely with our partners in Africa and Mkomazi is an important partner for many reasons. First of all, Tony Fitzjohn, one of the most influential African wildlife conservationists, worked there in the past, and our Safari Park brought four black rhinos there, that now live there and have had offspring and even grandchildren.

"Since 2009, our project has been running there in quite an extensive way, equipping elephants and other animals with telemetric collars that track their movements, what they do and how they do it. Because if you can track what animals do, you can prevent human-wildlife conflicts, which are one of the main threats for African wildlife right now and have been for quite a long time."

This new part of the project focuses on elephants. What exactly are the scientists researching - you mentioned the movements of the elephants - is there anything else?

Photo: Safari Park Dvůr Králové

"Mkomazi is a national park right on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, but it's quite under pressure by the increasing human population in this area. Communities of course need to eat, they need to plant crops, and for that reason, we need to find out where the elephants go, to prevent them from eating or destroying crops and to find ways to prevent conflict.

“If the elephants have migratory paths where they always go, we need to know where exactly those are to prevent the building of roads and villages there. So all this information that we are now able to gather will really help us protect the whole species, and also the whole environment and ecosystem."

"Elephants are an iconic species and super important for the local environment, so it's important to know as much as possible about their behaviour. The collars that we equip them with let us know where they go, when they go there, whether they go there in groups or individually, whether females give birth in a herd or separately. We get a lot of information that helps us to find out more about the life of this magnificent creature and protect it.”

Will the telemetric collars be able to protect the elephants from poaching, which I believe is one of the biggest threats to the elephant population?

"It definitely will not help poachers to get information on the elephants, that’s for sure, because everything is coded, and any information that we publish in the future will come later, so the elephants won't be there once we publish the news.

"Also, if we know where the elephants go, how they migrate from, for example, Mkomazi to Tsavo, which is a huge national park in the southern part of Kenya neighbouring Mkomazi, it gives us enough information to prevent them from meeting poachers, and in that respect, we can protect them from poachers a little bit as well.

"But to be honest, this is not the main target of the research - we really want to prevent human-wildlife conflict that then leads to killing animals. Not only poaching is a threat to wildlife, but also avoiding confrontations between animals and locals. Human-wildlife conflict is one of the biggest threats to animals right now, because of course the human population is increasing, and preventing those conflicts means helping the whole ecosystem and the whole species.

“If locals feel threatened by animals or they feel some sort of pressure, they might want to get rid of the wildlife that is causing problems - which is very understandable, they have no other way of getting food. They have to plant trees, they have to plant crops, and for that reason, advising them how to do it and where to do it will help and might even be crucial for the whole elephant population in Tsavo and Mkomazi."

"This is way for Dvůr Králové to help wildlife, but also local communities, because it would be naive to think that wildlife can live without coexisting together with people. We need the relationship to be as symbiotic as possible and that is what this project can help with."