THE ELEPHANT
LISTENING PROJECT

FOREST ELEPHANT ECOLOGY

Adult elephant emerging from forest

© Peter Wrege

'We live in the forest, stupid!'

Overview
The ecology of forest elephants is characterized by the prominance of fruits in the diet and a relatively small family unit that moves together through the forest. In most parts of their range, clearings in the forest provide critical resources for elephants. Here they can access scarse minerals and interact socially with family and potential mates.

Forest elephants browse forest vegetation, eat large quantities of fruit when available, and supplement their diet with minerals from water pits or soil deposits when available. The majority of movements of elephant families through the forested landscape are dictated by the need to find these resources. Although suitable browse is probably found in most parts of the forest (elephants are generalists, so many species of plant are eaten), fruit trees and mineral deposits are both spatially clumped and both are known to influence seasonal movements.

Various parts of trees (leaves, bark) represent almost 3/4 of the forest elephant diet and some fruit remains are found in about 83% of dung piles examined in one study. Because tropical fruiting trees produce fruits seasonally, but different species fruit at different times of year and may be either clumped in distribution or widely dispersed, finding suitable fruits could be a major challenge for forest elephants. One characteristic of the forests of Central Africa is the vast network of paths that elephants make in order to move from forest clearings to fruiting tree resources and back. Recent studies showed that the density of these paths is correlated both with the abundance of elephant-favored fruiting trees and with forest clearings. The abundance of fruiting trees is much higher near elephant trails than away from them.

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of forest elephant ecology is their attraction to clearings in the forest where they seek out minerals and social interactions. Clearings, called 'bais' by Central Africans, are highly diverse in terms of their physical character and probably in the quality of mineral resources available from them.

Adult elephant in savannah-forest mosaic

© Peter Wrege

Savannah-forest mosaics occur in many places within the range of forest elephants and here the scene recalls elephants in the savannah ecosystems of east and southern Africa. This female (with her calf) has a satellite collar used to track her movements.

References:

Blake, Stephen and Clement Inkamba-Nkulu. 2004. Fruit, minerals, and forest elephant trails: do all trails lead to Rome? Biotropica 36:392-401.

Klaus, G., C. Klaus-Hugi, and B. Schmid. 1998. Geophagy by large mammals at natural licks in the rain forest of the Dzanga National Park, Central African Republic. Journal of Tropical Ecology 14:829-839.

Turkalo, A. and J. M. Fay. 2001. Forest elephant behavior and ecology: Observations from the Dzanga saline. In W. Weber, L. J. T. White, A. Vedder, and L. Naughton-Treves (Eds.). African rain forest ecology and conservation, pp. 207–213. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

White, L.J.T., C.E.G. Tutin, and M. Fernandez. 1993. Group composition and diet of forest elephants, Loxodonta africana cyclotis Matschie 1900, in the Lope Reserve, Gabon. African Journal of Ecology 31:181-199.