Apr 20

SA Elephants Get to Choose the Pick of the Crop – Literally!

Let’s ask elephants what they prefer!

As Elephants Alive research has always been led by elephants, we decided to ask them to guide us this time as well! We studied elephants’ preferences towards 18 different types of crops, the majority of which are of high combined economic value (food, essential oil, medicinal and bee fodder value) and suitable for growing in Southern African climates. The experiments allowed us to evaluate several plants that have never been tested in terms of their palatability to elephants. Our results showed that it would be preferable to plant cassava as a staple compared to any corn variant which was highly favoured by the elephants. Herbs such as borage and rosemary with medicinal and aromatic properties respectively, were strongly avoided, together with bird’s eye chilli (a well-known elephant deterrent crop). We found that lemon grass and sunflowers, presented as whole fresh plants to the elephants, were highly sought after by the elephants. This is surprising, as both plant types have been described as unpalatable to both Asian and African elephants alike.

According to our overall scoring system, four food types proved best suited for the proposed corridor region (bird’s eye chilli, cape gold, cape snowbush and rosemary). Of these, only bird’s eye chilli had been tested before! The other three plant types have been used in producing essential oil and hold great promise for income-generation. The global market for essential oils continues to reflect a strong upward trend, having increased by an average of 15% from 2018 to 2019. Global production is valued at USD6.5bn and projected to rise to USD15.8bn by 2024–2025.

Research like that of Elephants Alive saves time and resources and avoids demoralising already poverty-stricken communities. The next phase involves the installation of bee-hive fences in the Mozambique corridor (planned for May 2023), as well as further research into more plant types according to the climatic conditions of the proposed areas in which they could be cultivated. Market research is needed, as well as yields, to sufficiently equip communities with the right produce. The knowledge gained through these novel cafeteria-style experiments is a major step forward in safeguarding elephant migration and ecosystem corridors and promoting human-elephant coexistence!