Changes in Elephant Abundance Affect Forest Composition or Regeneration?

Patrick Omeja, Aerin L Jacob, Michael Lawes, Jeremiah Lwanga, Jessica M Rothman, Charles Tumwesigye, Colin Chapman

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    While overall numbers of African elephant have declined dramatically in recent times, some populations are now confined to protected areas and are locally overabundant-an undesirable situation for both biodiversity conservation and elephants. In forested protected areas, options to manage elephants are limited because it is difficult to safely approach animals, yet it is vital that these populations are managed because browsing by elephants can dramatically alter forest ecosystems. Using data collected over 50 yr in Kibale National Park, Uganda, we examine the prediction that increasing elephant numbers and associated changes in their foraging behavior have caused a shift in tree community composition. Although the relative abundance of elephants increased significantly between 1996 and 2010, the population structure of their preferred tree food species did not change, nor did tree community composition change in favor of species able to re-sprout after elephant damage. Furthermore, over the last 50 yr Kibale elephants have not become more selective foragers, as would be expected if more nutritious tree species were declining. However, elephants are more abundant in disturbed areas dominated by shrubs and grasses and appear to have arrested forest succession in these areas. At their current abundance, elephants have not selectively altered the composition of intact old growth forest, but they do inhibit the regeneration of disturbed areas.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)704-711
    Number of pages8
    JournalBiotropica
    Volume46
    Issue number6
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014

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