Human footprint and protected areas shape elephant range across Africa

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By Jake Wall, George Wittemyer, Brian Klinkenberg, Valerie LeMay, Stephen Blake, Samantha Strindberg, Michelle Henley, Fritz Vollrath, Fiona Maisels, Jelle Ferwerda and Iain Douglas-Hamilton – Current Biology

  • 229 African elephants were tracked across forest, Sahel, savanna, and bushveld sites
  • Protected areas and the human footprint both constrain elephant range size
  • 62% of the African continent is potential elephant habit, of which elephants use 17%
  • 85% of potential elephant habitat lies outside current protected areas


Over the last two millennia, and at an accelerating pace, the African elephant (Loxodonta spp. Lin.) has been threatened by human activities across its range.1234567 We investigate the correlates of elephant home range sizes across diverse biomes. Annual and 16-day elliptical time density home ranges8 were calculated by using GPS tracking data collected from 229 African savannah and forest elephants (L. africana and L. cyclotis, respectively) between 1998 and 2013 at 19 sites representing bushveld, savannah, Sahel, and forest biomes. Our analysis considered the relationship between home range area and sex, species, vegetation productivity, tree cover, surface temperature, rainfall, water, slope, aggregate human influence, and protected area use. Irrespective of these environmental conditions, long-term annual ranges were overwhelmingly affected by human influence and protected area use. Only over shorter, 16-day periods did environmental factors, particularly water availability and vegetation productivity, become important in explaining space use. Our work highlights the degree to which the human footprint and existing protected areas now constrain the distribution of the world’s largest terrestrial mammal.9,10 A habitat suitability model, created by evaluating every square kilometer of Africa, predicts that 18,169,219 km2 would be suitable as elephant habitat—62% of the continent. The current elephant distribution covers just 17% of this potential range of which 57.4% falls outside protected areas. To stem the continued extirpation and to secure the elephants’ future, effective and expanded protected areas and improved capacity for coexistence across unprotected range are essential.

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