Erecting fences in the memories of elephants

The capacity of an elephant to retain memories may be helpful in dealing with human-wildlife conflict, like that experienced between subsistence farmers and crop-raiding elephants.

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All animals, but especially elephants, remember boundaries and landscapes which affect general movement patterns. This memory pattern means that elephants can be taught to respect boundaries and stay clear of crops, according to Mike la Grange, game capture specialist from African Wildlife Management and Conservation (AWMC) in Zimbabwe.

Speaking at the recent International Wildlife Management Congress in Durban, La Grange said an array of reminder measures repeatedly applied at the boundary could instill the memory and train would-be raiders to stay away. These measures include exploding firecrackers or chilli bombs whenever the animal approached or crossed the barrier. Chilli causes adverse physical reactions in elephants, including eye irritation and burning sensations in the trunk, forcing the elephant to retreat.

“The elephant must associate crossing the barrier with a consequence. An animal establishes a barrier through experience, most often through a sustained confrontation of some sort,” he said. Problem animals to be culled as a last resort, should be shot along the boundary and not in the adjacent wildlife area. If they are shot at the boundary, the incident should serve to fortify the memory fence. Elephants will communicate such incidents to each other, La Grange said.

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If elephant herds can be kept clear of crops for a sustained period, corridors can be permanently altered, a change which can be adhered to for generations. “It takes diligence, patience and persistence to firmly establish a boundary in an elephant’s memory. But once established, the fence will exist in the elephant’s mind even when it is no longer physically there.”

La Grange said game farmers trying to expand range areas by taking down fences had experienced problems when elephants refused to cross imaginary fences. “The elephants may have to be darted and taken across the boundary at considerable expense. Once there, it seems to reboot the elephant dynamic,” La Grange said.