What drives the seasonal movements of african elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Ithala Game Reserve?
The changes in plant quality and availability in space and time present a substantial problem to mammalian herbivores. As a result, these herbivores need to alter their foraging behaviour to maximize their energy gain at both small (plant level) and large (landscape level) scales. A megaherbivore, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), has been shown to be selective in its foraging choices at both of these scales. Furthermore, the ratio of palatability:defences (e.g. fibre and total polyphenols) has been highlighted as an important determinant of habitat selection in elephants. The elephants in Ithala Game Reserve (IGR) frequently leave IGR during the wet season and forage outside the reserve. However, they predominantly feed on the low-nutrient granite soils of the reserve and return to a high-nutrient area with dolerite soils during the dry season. In an attempt to understand these seasonal movements, I focused on how the small-scale foraging decisions of the elephants lead to large-scale seasonal movements in IGR, KwaZulu-Natal. Plant availability was determined seasonally for seven target species across four areas in the reserve. Crude protein, fibre, energy and total polyphenols as well as the ratios of palatability:digestion-reducing substances were analysed in the wet and dry seasons. All factors and their interactions were significant in a MANOVA. Consequently, I employed a dimension-reducing Principal Components Analysis (PCA) to better understand the factors of greatest importance. The PCA highlighted four of the six most important factors to be the ratios of palatability:digestion-reducing substances. The other two important variables were total polyphenols (negative effect) and crude protein (positive effect). At small spatial scales, I found that the elephants were selective in their decisions, especially during the dry season. For example, the increased inclusion of the principal tree species Acacia nilotica from 2.9% in the wet season to 39.3% during the dry season appears to be a result of a decline in total polyphenols and fibre during the dry season. At large spatial scales, the elephants moved back into IGR from the low-nutrient granite soils in the east in response to an increase in forage quality in the west as the quality declined in the east at the same time. However, it is unclear as to why the elephants are leaving the reserve during the wet season. Some possible explanations for this are discussed.Key-words: acid detergent fibre, crude protein, Loxodonta africana, neutral detergent fibre, total polyphenols, plant part quality.