Fruit trees drive small-scale movement of elephants in Kibale National Park, Uganda

Simon Queenborough and 1 other contributor

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    Understanding what motivates animal spatial behavior requires discerning the relationship between animals and the landscape in which they move. Many studies have focused on large scale trends that drive migrations and movement across broad landscapes, but few studies have focused on drivers of local movement within smaller areas based on fine-scale landscape heterogeneity. This is especially true for African elephants (Loxodonta africana), whose movements in relation to landscape variables have frequently been studied across vast areas, but infrequently on a small scale. We report on how the local distribution of an important resource-fruit trees-shapes elephant movement patterns in Kibale National Park, Uganda. We hypothesized that the spatial location of elephant trails, and especially intersections in the network of trails, would be heavily associated with fruit trees, with trail density being higher in areas with greater fruit availability. Elephant trails and nearby fruit trees were mapped within a 64 km(2) area within the interior of the Park. Trail and fruit tree sampling were conducted along 16 evenly spaced one-km control transects and compared to 28.6 km of elephant trails arrayed throughout the park. Fruit tree basal area was higher along trails and at trail intersections. Trail density was also positively correlated with fruit tree density. Fruit trees may thus serve as a determinant of small-scale elephant movement and could be used to predict patterns of elephant spatial behavior across forested habitat, which has potential implications for elephant management in the area.