Behavioural dynamics of the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) in North-East Namibia using Model-Based Suitability, Connectivity, Movement and Genetic Analysis

Hello, I’m Saskia Borger, a recent graduate from the Technical University of Munich. I completed my Master’s thesis in collaboration with the Ongava Research Centre (ORC) and the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism in Namibia. Born and raised in South Africa, my passion for wildlife led me to undertake some laboratory and fieldwork at ORC during my graduate studies. My research focused on the behavioural dynamics of African Elephants in North-East Namibia within a human-dominated landscape. It was a privilege to work with such knowledgeable individuals and gain invaluable experiences from my time in Namibia.

Historically, elephants roamed across much of Africa, but in regions like north-eastern Namibia, rapid anthropogenic changes, such as increased settlements, exploitation, and land-use changes, are shrinking their habitats and forcing these majestic creatures to compete with humans and livestock for resources. Yet, research on elephant movement, behaviour, and genetics in this area is limited. Filling this knowledge gap is essential for effective management and conservation of Namibia’s elephant populations.

My study used three main methods. First, a habitat suitability and connectivity analysis, considering fences, land cover, river systems, water availability, settlements and roads, identified suitable patches and corridors in the study area. These corridors were further characterised¬†using “Linkage Mapper” to assess their connectivity likelihood. Secondly, the validity of the outputs were evaluated alongside expert opinions and home ranges of 14 GPS-collared elephants, spanning various seasons and life stages. Lastly, the genetic makeup of 139 individuals across northern Namibia was analysed using microsatellite analysis. Together, these methods provided an understanding of the community structure and movement patterns of elephants in the region.

Figure 1. Research design based on three core methods. 

My research identified key areas like Khaudum National Park/Nyae Nyae Conservancy, Mangetti National Park, and Waterberg Plateau National Park. Additionally, the Omatako River was highlighted as a crucial wildlife corridor in the connectivity analysis.

The genetic analysis highlighted significant variability and minimal structure in the northern Namibian elephant population. While initial signs of genetic divergence between eastern and western individuals were observed, they were relatively weak.

Behavioural differences were observed between elephants in protected and non-protected areas. Those in protected areas exhibited reduced spatial distribution and calmer behaviours, while those in non-protected regions displayed adaptations to avoid human presence, particularly sub-adult bulls demonstrating longer, swifter, nocturnal movements. Findings from elephants at the Kavango Cattle Ranch highlighted their ability to actively avoid inbreeding, with a collared female and her breeding herd interacting more with a collared bull less related to her based on genetic analysis.

Efforts are needed to preserve linkages between patches to facilitate genetic exchange among northern Namibian elephants and prevent genetic separation. This is crucial considering the increasing human pressures and landscape changes in the area, requiring strategies to mitigate these impacts alongside managing increased elephant populations.

Have a closer look at the poster below to discover additional information about my study: