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Track elephants through the hair of their tail

Lewis had gourmet taste: Whenever the dry season browned grass in his Kenyan sanctuary, he?d abandon the other elephants and race 25 miles to the mountains to raid farmers? corn fields under cover of night.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2006 12:33 IST

Lewis had gourmet taste: Whenever the dry season browned grass in his Kenyan sanctuary, he’d abandon the other elephants and race 25 miles to the mountains to raid farmers’ corn fields under cover of night.

A foot-long hair plucked from his tail, and GPS technology, tell the tale. It’s a new way to track elephants’ dietary needs and roaming habits that scientists hope ultimately could help the endangered species survive, information key to minimising conflicts between pachyderms and people.

 SMART BOX

 How it happened?

• Thure Cerling gathered hair from the tails of 35 elephants to analyze for long-lasting forms, called ‘stable isotopes’, of carbon and nitrogen that would appear when an elephant ate mostly plants or grass

• He matched that testing to Save the Elephants’ tracking, using GPS technology, of

elephant movements

• Among the first seven elephants tested, the 40-year-old Lewis was the wild guy



Indeed, Lewis’ roaming cost him his life. Shortly after the research ended, he was found shot to death, presumably by a farmer tired of the crop-raiding. “Part of the problem with the elephant is, we need to know how much space they really need,” explained geochemist Thure Cerling of the University of Utah, who led the research reported Monday in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.



“Why do they need a particular space? Could we manage the parks to make them work better for them?” Shrinking living space, as more people move into lands they once freely foraged, and poaching for ivory threaten elephant populations worldwide. But populations vary widely by country.



South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, for example, have booming herds. In contrast, Kenya and certain other African countries are struggling to increase decimated elephant populations.

First Published: Jan 04, 2006 12:33 IST