Surprisingly Similar: Deer and Elephant

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a Syracuse University  senior studying Biology and Economics. Her summer research was on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. She already has 3 NWNL blogs on African and N American watershed species:  Wild v Hatchery Salmon; Buffalo & Bison; & Papyrus & Pragmites.

Jones_180225_K_6049.jpgAfrican Elephant, Mara Conservancy, Kenya 

INTRODUCTION

This blog compares Africa’s savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) to the N. America’s white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in North America’s eastern United States. They present unlikely, but strikingly interesting comparative behaviors and impacts within their watersheds.  

In the Pliocene Era, elephants roamed and trumpeted their presence across the planet. Today they are a keystone species in African watersheds, including the Nile, Mara and Omo River Basins. Yet these giants are increasingly vulnerable to human poaching, hunting and destruction of habitat and migratory corridors. As a result, African savannah elephants are categorized as a “vulnerable” species.

In North America, white-tailed deer (also called Virginia deer) are present across the continent from the Atlantic Coast’s Raritan River Basin to the Pacific Coast’s Columbia River Basin. These nimble jumpers probably came to N America in the  Miocene Era as browsers competing for their niche with American rhinos. As they wheeze, grunt and bleat their presence today, they have few natural predators remaining, other than car collisions. Deer in the eastern US are a “Least Threatened” species – while Columbian white-tailed deer in Oregon’s Lower Columbia River Basin are “Near Threatened”.  

Jones_090629_NJ_1137.jpgWhite-Tailed Deer , Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

North American male deer stand at 6-7 feet and weigh 100-275 pounds (¼ of a ton, the weight of a baby elephant).  In contrast, full-grown elephants stand at 11 feet (twice as tall as deer) and weigh up to 13,000 lbs (6.5 tons). Yet despite these huge size differences, these 2 species impacts on watershed forests are quite similar. As herbivores, both threaten and alter their habitats’ vegetative diversity, growth and regeneration.

VEGETATION & FOREST INTERFACE

Elephants alter their watersheds by converting woodland to shrubland. Elephants consume large amounts of vegetation allowing growth of plants previously blocked from the sun. However the benefit of increasing plant diversity is countered by the destruction elephants cause while browsing their way through watersheds. They remove trees, trample grasses and compact the soil. This limits forest regeneration since seedlings cannot grow and their trails cause soil erosion.

Similarly, deer today are increasingly damaging forest vegetation due to their soaring populations. In the Raritan River Basin, impacts of high deer populations have resulted in habitat loss for birds and other animals that rely on vegetation for protection. Thus, native species are decreasing and could eventually disappear locally.

HUMAN INTERFACE

Another similarity both species face is that of negative interactions with humans. Elephant and deer both damage farmers’ crops.  Elephant contact with humans continues to increase as they lose their traditional habitats due to human infringement and development. Increased development has also led farmers to further transgress into what was elephant rangeland or migratory corridors. In following and browsing along their ancient pathways and territories today, elephants can trample crops and even kill people. Those elephants are often killed in retaliation. In Tanzania’s Serengeti District, the effect of elephants raiding crops means a bag of maize can be locally more valuable than the cost of building a classroom or tarmac road.

In America, deer find an ideal environment in urban and suburban areas with their mix of ornamental shrubs, lawns and trees.  Since deep forest vegetation is too high for them, deer browse along the “edge habitat” which also provides easy access to suburban yards.

deer crossing road.jpgWhite-tailed deer crossing a road (Creative Commons)

With the loss of wolves, bears and cougars, deer have had a lack of predators, causing their populations to soar. Now their biggest predators are human hunters and car accidents which cause deer and human fatalities. As well, human health impacted by deer that browse in the woods, meadows or dunes with ticks carrying Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis). Lyme disease can be lethal, or at the least debilitating, for humans, livestock and pets.

For elephant and deer, interaction with humans is not beneficial for either species. Sadly, given less space for the exploding human race, these fateful interactions will only increase.

WATER INTERFACE

The spread of human settlements, agriculture and livestock farming have replaced elephants’ natural habitats. Clearing of those traditional lands disturbs and decreases water volume in their rivers and lakes. Yet, when elephants were there, they created water holes which increased water availability for themselves and other species. Simultaneously, humans are increasing their consumption of today’s decreasing water and other natural resources.  

This scenario is dramatically playing out in Kenya’s Mara River Basin. In the Mau Forest highlands, human deforestation has depleted flows of source tributaries of the Mara River, a lifeline to the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. In turn, lowered water levels downstream have increased temperatures and disrupted local rainfall patterns. Thus the human takeover of the Mau Forest has chased out the elephant and disturbed downstream ecosystems, which in turn will contributed to decreases in wildlife populations and thus park revenues from tourism.

Elephants have direct impacts on water sources and availability since they are a “water-dependent species.” When water is scarce, they dig in dry river beds to provide water for themselves, other animals, and humans. Additionally, elephants migrate to find water – even if only via artificial, supplementary water points. More research is needed, but water availability may become a useful tool for regulating elephant distribution and managing ecological heterogeneity.  Yet an abundance of artificial water should be avoided in conservation areas where the presence of elephant would cause vegetation degradation.

Jones_090930_K_0584.jpgAfrican Elephants crossing the Mara River, Mara Conservancy, Kenya

Deer, unlike elephants, have a more indirect impact to water resources. Their impacts are more about quality of water than its availability. The nutrients and pathogens excreted by white-tailed deer become water pollutants in nearby streams and groundwater, especially during in storm runoffs.  Deer waste dropped in and along streams in the Raritan River Basin produces greater pathogenic contamination than cattle manure deposited away from streams.

HUNTING AS A WAY TO REDUCE HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICTS

Hunting is a controversial solution to controlling these species’ threats of ecosystem degradation and human conflict. Hunting elephant to counter their negative impacts has much greater negative consequences than hunting deer. Elephant poaching for  lucrative ivory profits became such a serious threat that elephants became listed as an Endangered Species. While a 1989 ban on international ivory trade allowed some populations to recover, illegal ivory trade still occurs and threatens elephant populations. Thus, shooting elephants marauding crops and killing farmers is not an option – thus the search for other means to controlling elephant degradation.

After elephants devour all vegetation in an area or during droughts, they migrate. However, that puts them face to face with today’s man-made fences and trenches built to stop elephants, as well as with new communities and farms. Thus Kenyan conservancies, International Fund for Animal Welfare,  Addo Elephant NP, Sangare Conservancy and other groups began creating “protected elephant corridors.” Such corridors provide elephants safe migratory paths where they don’t disturb humans.

Jones_180129_K_7661.jpgRanger at the entrance gate to Sangare Conservancy, Kenya

Deer hunting however is viewed  by many as a positive means to control over-abundant deer populations destroying gardens and forests. In rural regions, deer are still hunted for food and sport which helps save forest saplings from deer browse. But that removes only a limited number, and there have been traditional limits on deer hunting. Along Mississippi’s Big Black River, the state still restricts  killing year-old bucks and any deer hunting during floods. Many such restrictions are being loosened today to help counter the rapid growth of deer populations. As well, to reduce deer browse and car collisions, some suburbs hold carefully-organized, targeted hunts by licensed “sharp-shooters,” and the venison is harvested for homeless shelters. Suburban methods to combat deer intrusions also often include installing 8-foot tall fences to protect gardens, landscaping and critical ecosystems.

Jones_180129_K_7681.jpgFence of the Sangare Conservancy, Kenya 

FOREST IMPACTS

Elephants’ foraging creates open habitats for other species. However, browsing of resulting mid-successional species by elephants and other species can stop regrowth of trees and forest. “As go the elephants, so go the trees.” This issue is similar to deer browsing on soft-leaved saplings in N. American forests that preventing the growth of future forests.

Yet elephants compensate for their heavy vegetative consumption.  More than a dozen tree species depend on forest elephants for to spread their seeds. This type of seed dispersal occurs via each elephant’s daily  200-lb. dung droppings, thus ensuring survival of vegetation. Another benefit of creating open spaces by altering and removing trees is the opportunity for greater faunal diversity. Elephants uproot and fell trees and strip bark; but in this process, they break down branches which provides access to food for smaller wildlife.

TZ-ELE-215.jpgHerd of African elephants with newborn, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania

All this change created by elephants creates “a cyclical vegetational seesaw of woodland to grassland and back to woodland.” As debris of trees felled by elephants shields pioneer grasses and shrubs from trampling, deep-rooted perennial grasses can grow. These grasses attract grazers to the area, while the browsers leave. When the woodlands regenerate, elephant number will return, followed by browsers.  

Deer, unlike elephants, are non-migratory however, and thus they don’t spur cycles of regeneration. Therefore, watersheds with deer-infested forests face ongoing degradation. Today’s soaring numbers of deer prevent any chance of forest recovery from their constant browsing. Deer also displace native wildlife, which furthers the cascade of ecosystem degradation. When a forest loses trees, there is less water recycling  since trees produce and move rain downwind to other terrestrial surfaces.  Water retention in a forest is also related to presence of ground cover – also eaten by deer – which decreases stormwater runoff and downstream erosion in floodplains or wetlands. A lack of ground cover causes inland forests and downstream areas to become arid and potentially a waste land. The deer do not produce compensatory benefits that elephant produce.

Jones_090629_NJ_1120.jpgWhite-tailed deer Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

CONCLUSIONS

Elephant and deer each have increasingly negative impacts on watershed vegetation and human communities. However a big difference exists in effective stewardship for controlling these species. In Africa, elephant numbers (2007-2014) have dropped by nearly a third, representing a loss of 144,000 elephants.  Begun in 2014, the Great Elephant Census (GEC) accounted for over 350,000 savannah elephant across 18 African countries and states the current yearly loss at 8 per cent. Tanzania, having one of the highest declines, and Mozambique have lost 73,000 elephants due to poaching in just five years.

However deer populations have exploded.  In 2014, US deer populations across the United States were estimated at over 15 million. In New Jersey, there are approximately 76-100 deer per square mile; yet a healthy ecosystem can support only 10 deer per square mile.  These high densities of deer are decimating US forests.

Making elephant poaching illegal and banning ivory trade has saved elephant populations in Africa. But in N America further controls of the growing population of deer is badly needed. The most obvious step towards this goal would be to remove deer hunting restrictions – the very opposite of Africa’s stopping the hunting and poaching of elephants.

On both continents, immediate solutions are critical if we are to protect our forests and water supplies – critical natural resources of our watersheds – from degradation being increasingly incurred by both species. Elephants consume vegetation and degrade areas of abundant water; while tick-carrying deer contaminate water with their excrement and threaten the future of our forests. One could summarize the consequence of too many deer as “No Forests – No Water” – and the consequence of losing elephant as “No Elephants – No Water.”

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted.

Bibliography:

World Wildlife Fund for Nature, accessed on June 28, 2018
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African Forest Policy Forum – Proceedings, accessed on June 28, 2018
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Celebrating World Wildlife Day!

By Christina Belasco

Today we celebrate World Wildlife Day. Acting to preserve our planet’s treasured biodiversity is more important now than ever. To honor our beloved creatures we share with you all today photos from our African and North American case study watersheds! We can never forget that these animals all depend on healthy, clean fresh water so we must protect our watersheds as well. Each animal, no matter how big or small, plays a critical role in the ecosystem and are all worthy of love and conservation. This reminds us all that no action we take in conservation is too small. We thank local environmental stewards everywhere for standing up for their ecosystems.

Africa:

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Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve. Elephants are a flagship species of the Maasai Mara Reserve. They are a key indicator species, and are in danger due to illegal poaching for their ivory.

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Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park. An Olive Baboon (papio anubis) eats a kigelia nut in groundwater forest. The baboon’s greatest threats are habitat loss due to deforestation as well as human hunting.

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Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve. An Impala Herd grazes at sunset. Impala are an important food source for many predators in the African Savanna, and are a very adaptable species.

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Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park. A Lioness is perched in an Acacia tree. Lionesses hunt for the pride. These predators of the Savanna are in danger because of habitat loss and poaching.

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Tanzania: Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The annual Wildebeest migration is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, when over 1.5 million Wildebeest trod in an enormous loop through Tanzania and Kenya.

North America:

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Columbia River Basin, Greater Yellowstone. The Buffalo was once the great icon of the heartland of the United States, and are sacred to the Native Americans of the plains who relied on Buffalo for centuries as their source of food, material, and ceremony. As the settlers came, the Buffalo was nearly hunted out of existence. Thanks to recent conservation efforts, especially in Yellowstone National Park, this giant creature is making a slow comeback.

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Washington, Columbia River Basin. Chinook Salmon are critical to river ecosystems in the Northwest. The single most damaging threat to the Salmon are dams, which block their ability to migrate downstream and into the ocean where they need to go to complete their life cycle.

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New Jersey, Mountainville (Raritan River Basin). Atlantis fritillary butterfly feeds on the bloom of a bush. Butterfly are not only beautiful, they help pollinate flowers and are a key indicator species.

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Louisiana, Atchafalaya Basin. The Alligator in the Atchafalaya Basin is a critical predator. It faces a multitude of threats including habitat loss, immense pollution, and human hunting.

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New Jersey, Upper Raritan River Basin. Honeybee populations all over the world are facing an enormous crisis due to pesticide spraying and climate change.

Happy World Elephant Day!

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By Christina Belasco, NWNL Project Manager

Today we celebrate and advocate on behalf of the iconic and magnificent elephant. As a keystone species and overall flagship symbol of conservation, the value of these creatures cannot be understated. Elephants are extremely intelligent, loving, and are an irreplaceable part of our natural world and landscape, which is why we must act now to save them from the numerous threats they face.

Elephants are an important key to biodiversity as they create crucial habitat with their seed dispersal. Their huge footprints even create mini pools in the ground for bugs and small flora.

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Elephants are extremely social, and the water hole is an important place to them. Besides being a vital source of life, elephants use the water hole to mingle with one another and play. They form bonds and friendships, just as many other species do.

The greatest threats to elephants are poaching for the ivory trade and habitat loss due to deforestation. We can all stand up to the ivory trade now by refusing to buy ivory and supporting habitat protection and restoration.

Here are two organizations that No Water No Life has personally connected with in its documentation of elephants in the Mara River Basin:

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Save The Elephants

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Knowing the facts will help us SAVE ELEPHANTS

Kenya: Amboseli National Park, male elephant in mud hole, baboons in distance.
Kenya: Amboseli National Park, male elephant in mud hole, baboons in distance.

Ironically, just after our blog yesterday, about the remarkable qualities of elephants, more sad statistics were featured in today’s NY Times, p. A9.

Study Details Elephant Deaths

Poachers killed an estimated 100,000 elephants across Africa from 2010 to 2012, a huge spike in the continent’s death rate of the world’s largest mammals because of an increased demand for ivory in China and other Asian nations, a study published Monday found. Warnings about elephant slaughters have been ringing for years, but Monday’s study is the first to scientifically quantify the number of deaths across the continent by measuring deaths in one park in Kenya and using other published data to extrapolate fatality tolls across the continent. The study found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants had climbed from 25 percent of all elephant deaths a decade ago to roughly 65 percent of all elephant deaths today, a percentage that, if continued will lead to the extinction of the species. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was carried out by experts from Save the Elephants, the Kenya Wildlife Service, an international group called MIKE responsible for monitoring the illegal killings of elephants, and two universities.

Read more about this in the Huffington Post.

Kenya: Amboseli Nat'l Park, baby elephant with herd of females in background.
Kenya: Amboseli National Park, baby elephant with herd of females in background.

An elephant’s memory of water

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The African savannah elephant is the largest land mammal in the world. In folklore, elephants are known for not forgetting. For the African savannah elephant, memory is a tool for surviving challenges that may come intermittently over decades. Long-term memory tends to be vested in the older females, called matriarchs, without which the herd could die of starvation or dehydration. During the drought of 1993 in Tanzania, elephant matriarchs that remembered a similar drought 35 years before led their herds beyond the borders of Tarangire National Park in search of food and water. Groups with matriarchs that were not old enough to remember the previous drought suffered a 63 percent mortality of their calves that year. (Source: Wildlife Conservation Society)

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Elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive.
~Alex Shoumatoff

Discover more interesting facts about Loxodonta africana.

Read the story of Satao, a bull elephant who lived in the arid plains northwest of Mombasa, who had tusks so long that when he walked they nearly scraped the ground.

Take the IFAW pledge to PROTECT ELEPHANTS!

Kenya: Samburu National Reserve, female African elephant with two young adults and baby drinking from Uaso Nyiro River
Kenya: Samburu National Reserve, female African elephant with two young adults and baby drinking from Uaso Nyiro River

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

Today is Endangered Species Day

2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Federal Endangered Species Act!  NWNL would like to share photos of endangered species around the world which we have been lucky enough to encounter. Click on photos above for species information and check out our photoshelter galleries to see lots more!

Photos © Alison M. Jones