The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence - even when the boundary fence has been broken down to give elephants more room to roam.

These are some of the recent findings of elephant researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) who have been examining a wide range of behaviour and ecological impacts caused by the fences which separate humans and animals at wildlife parks around the country.

Game-proof Electric Fences have been used in South Africa for many years to protect wildlife and to prevent conflict between animals and humans.

In one of the studies in the Pilanesberg National Park, researchers found that the daily movement patterns of elephants were strongly influenced by the proximity of the boundary fence and concluded that elephants at Pilanesberg tend to remain in the central area of the park and appear to avoid the electrified boundary fence - in some cases, by as much as 3,8km.

They found that the fence-avoidance patterns were not likely to have been influenced by the availability of food, since there were no significant differences in natural vegetation when comparing the interior to the boundary area.

The researchers concluded that the effects of fencing were long-lived in some species and, once removed, it might take decades for them to adapt to the new area.

“This cautious behaviour has been validated by numerous studies that have shown that animals adapt their ranging and feeding behaviour to avoid unexplored areas and human-induced disturbance.”.

For example, brown hyenas in some parts of Africa only became active around midnight in order to avoid potentially hostile humans. Research in Kenya also showed that elephants tended to “streak” through unfenced corridor areas to avoid human contact.

The research at Phinda-Munyawana also suggested that elephants were unlikely to move quickly to greener pastures when wildlife managers removed international boundary fences to create new trans-frontier parks with neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

(Original article; Tony Carnie, SA Times)

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