- Scientists have shown that African elephants raised in captivity can be released to the African savannah with relative ease and do fine. Trials done in Botswana give hope for re-establishing threatened elephant range states.
Canadian scientists around Kate Evans have investigated how African elephants raised in captivity and released onto the savannah in Botswana's Okavango Delta have managed to integrate and socialise with wild herds. Several released elephants were followed over three years and the researchers from the UK University of Bristol were surprised how well the release went off.
Evans and her team say that one of the main hypothesises was that elephants raised in captivity would create more problems towards human settlements. This however proved wrong during her observations. The released elephants did not locate closer to human settlements than their wild colleagues and did in no manner try to seek contact with humans.
The grade of shyness of the animals is a key issue in conservation projects. Proposed elephant releases often are met with protests by locals, fearing conflicts of interests with the giant mammals. Elephant can cause enormous damage to crops and infrastructure if they settle to close to humans. But the research in Okavango in Botswana indicates that there are no behavioural differences between wild and released elephants.
But an equally important question in the study was about animal welfare of the released beasts. Would they manage well on the savannah, and would they be able to integrate into the wild herds? Or would they become isolated individuals?
According to Evans, the most important issue is to make sure the animals kept in captivity are released in just the right age. Male elephants do best when they are released in adolescent years, just at the time when they naturally leave the herd to live on their own.
"Our data show that it is possible to release captive-raised male elephants without significant welfare concerns," writes Evans. The survival rates post-release would mostly be high, adds the scientist, and her study had shown that "they can integrate into the complex society of bull elephants."
Generally, Evans and colleagues found only minor behavioural differences between released and wild elephants. Beasts growing up in captivity had a tendency to seek to smaller herds than other elephant bulls, but turned out to have as much social interactions with other elephants as other animals. Another minor difference was that the released elephants established on a smaller range than animals growing up on the savannah, but this seemingly did not cause any problems.
Evans underlines that the findings could have important implications for the maintenance of elephant populations throughout Africa. "African elephants have disappeared from many of their range states, and there are likely to be significant conservation and ecological benefits from restoring flagship species to areas they cannot recolonise naturally," the study concludes.
But Evans adds that it is "important to release the right age mixture and sex ratio" to make sure that future elephant recolonisations projects will be successful.
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