Elephant Chemical Tracking
Tracking spoor, aerial photography and radio frequencies are the more common methods of tracking the beautiful elephant. However, a novel way has been discovered and is being given serious attention by scientists. It is with the prosperity and survival of the elephants in mind that this method has been developed.
Chemical tracking involves the analysis of the tail hair of the elephant. Specifically, the stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon in the tail hairs are analysed in order to ascertain where the elephants were eating and exactly what they were consuming. At first, the elephants were simultaneously being tracked by GPS / satellite to substantiate the research. A similar method of analysing stable isotopes is used to track the source of counterfeit money, drugs, bombs and even lethal chemicals like Anthrax.
Learning that elephants travel from areas that display completely different vegetation from one another indicates an important trend. If elephants are being forced to move into other areas on a regular basis, it indicates that there is either not enough food in the one area, or that humans or predators are forcing them out of their natural habitat to a less preferred one. By knowing that their habitat is either dangerous or too small for them, conservationists are more able to make an alternative plan for their safety and survival.
Tracking their diet through these isotopes also assists scientists to ascertain whether they are receiving the necessary nutrients that they require. Often, elephants are limited to what they can eat by their restricted habitat. This will be manifested by their movements and eating habits and any changes therein.
A stable isotope is one that does not change or decay radioactively. The proportions of these isotopes (nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon) in plants, water, animal and air are determined by various environmental factors. So, by analysing these proportions, scientists are able to determine these different factors and how these specific ecosystems work.
For example, a tail hair that displays a low carbon-13-to-carbon-12 ratio is indicative of the elephant’s eating trees and shrubs while that hair was growing (as opposed to grasses and crops). Similarly, if the elephant has a high ration of nitrogen-15-to-nitrogen-14, it would show that the elephant has spent their time in more arid plains. In lush periods of vegetative growth, elephants will feed off grass. In drier periods, they will resort to trees and shrubs.
Diet is essential, particularly to elephant bulls, who trek vast distances to find a receptive female with whom to mate. When food is short or inappropriate to the nutritional needs of the animal, his life is in danger and, with it, the strength of his potential herd.
While this exciting new method of tracking looks positive, it is recommended that it be partnered with another tracking method, such as satellite tracking, in order to support the findings. This method offers scientists a greater volume of information regarding the movements and motivations of these insightful animals. This then prompts them to make informed, realistic decisions about their conservation and care.