Sexual segregation in habitat use by elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

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African Journal of Ecology





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We report on a study conducted on free-ranging African elephants in the woodlands of northern Botswana. We compared bull groups and family units with regard to (1) their patterns of habitat use and (2) their ranging distances from perennial water sources. During the dry season, adult males frequented more habitat types than family units, whereas family units used a wider diversity of habitats than bulls during the wet season. Bulls roamed widely (>10 km) from perennial drinking water in the dry season, when family units congregated within 3.5 km of the rivers. During the wet season, when ephemeral pans were abundant, all elephant groups were found at intermediate distances (5 km) from the rivers. The spacing of elephants in the dry season is consistent with sexual segregation but we reject the hypothesis that this is an outcome of indirect competition for food, because our concurrent studies on elephant feeding ecology found no evidence for intraspecific competition. Instead, we propose that most adult male elephants space themselves to avoid conflict with musth bulls and roam widely in the dry season between discretely distributed feeding ‘hotspots’. The small proportion of males that are in musth remain close to family units to maximize mating opportunities, and family units are unable to range far from water in the dry season. This is due to (1) comparatively high rates of water turn-over among juveniles and lactating cows and (2) the reduced mobility of neonates.