Elephant Facts: Food eaten by both, Elephants and people in Uganda


Uganda is home to over 5000 elephants by this year, 2019. It is still the safest home to elephants in east Africa during this wave of elephant poaching that is moving over the entire African continent. The two subspecies of elephants found in this country are, the savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). The savanna elephants are slightly bigger and roam in the low land plains of east, central and south Africa. The forest elephants are smaller, shyer and more aggressive. They are found in the forest parks such as Rwenzori, Bwindi and Mgahinga. Elephants are being considered by people, as one of the most destructive neighbors in the wild.

Elephants are known to have extended migration corridors in their habitat that can be hundreds of kilometers long. During the migration they can move about 80 or more km per day, taking them months of movement back and forth depending on the availability of pastures and water they need for survival. This movement is also a strategy of looking for safe homes as well as sufficient food. This has attributed to the increased number of elephants in Uganda since they move from as far as the Virunga national park in Congo up to queen Elizabeth national park. Unfortunately, the in-country migration corridors within Uganda that used to connect several ecosystems (different national parks) no longer exist since they have been occupied by humans, so the elephants in Uganda are forced to be divided between the different national parks of Uganda. Of the ten national parks in Uganda, only lake Mburo national park doesn’t have elephants.

Under natural conditions, elephants feed on wild plant materials; fruits, leaves, flowers, shoots, grasses and shrubs. Unlike people who feed on both plants and meat, elephants are exclusively herbivores. Only vegetation has got to provide the required nutrients for this giant bodied mammal that weighs between 1800kg and 6000kg.  Their main diet is cellulose, a very complex carbohydrate found in plants. A given diet of an elephant depends on the season (body functions), body size and food availability in their habitat. Elephant food and water intake at a given time, compared to body size across all elephant species, are influenced by the ability to efficiently digest and the body functions being supported; which may include maintenance, growth and lactation. With their large body mass influencing a high demand for food, the elephants spend 80% of their time feeding to collect up to 170kg of food consumed each day.

Because of their intensive feeding behavior, if elephants feed in one area for a long time, they destruct the environment beyond recognition. They have therefore adapted an innovative way of conserving their habitat by moving long distances so that the vegetation they feed on can recover as they move over the long journeys, before they return, to allow regeneration. Elephants also conserve their habitat by determining the size of their groups basing on the season. During food scarcity seasons, elephants tend to move in smaller and isolated families so that they can be less crowded at one time. If there is plenty of food especially during the rainy season or visiting the plentiful community gardens, families can marge together to form a large herd. Merging up as a large group is also a strategy to enhance the security of their hard during their movement. Savannah elephants’ in Uganda tend to move longer distances in their migration because the pasture and water is scarcer in the lowlands than in the highland forest. Forest elephants have abundance of pasture in their habitat. This accounts for why forest elephants move shorter distances on their grazing journey since they find plenty of food within reach at a short distance. Forest elephants are known to feed on up to 5000 types of plants, being the biggest variety any mammal on earth can be adapted to feed on within a habitat. This is partly why the forest elephant are less destructive to people’s gardens neighboring the protected areas.

Ugandan rural communities mainly depend on farming as the key source of livelihood. The people live near the wildlife protected areas; which include national parks, wildlife reserves, forest reserves. Uganda’s protected areas don’t have a gazetted buffer zone, hence the parks and reserves border with community gardens. The gardens are located in the areas that used to be the migration corridors of elephants connecting to other ecosystems. Around Uganda’s national parks, communities mainly farm cotton, coffee and other food crops such as Mize, Simsim, G. nuts, beans, bananas, cassava and other vegetables.

All elephants in Uganda live inside protected areas. During the dry season, the quality of pasture inside the protected areas, especially in the low land savannah, is very low. At these times, the elephants prefer palatable vegetation. This partly accounts for why the elephants in Uganda have adapted to feeding on the people’s crops. Elephants supplement the wild plant food materials with the crop plants on community land. A case in point; in Kikorongo community neighboring queen Elizabeth national park, during such seasons, elephants like to feed on the fresh cotton plants, particularly the fresh bolls as they start to open up. Unlike people, Elephants destroy all parts of the crop when they visit the gardens. Besides feeding, their large parades, surface of feet and body weight trembles the remnant crops, including those they won’t feed on.

The elephant’s digestion system is not very efficient so it has got to look for the most accessible and palatable greases, hence feeding on the crops on the community land that is easier to find and quicker to digest. Generally, plants have their highest protein concentration at their first flush of growth. As in all herbivores, the elephant digestion system is in two main levels; mechanical digestion during chewing and fermentation by the microorganisms found in the digestion system that convert the cellulose into simpler products resulting into glucose. Elephants have a rapid gut transit time and are consistent with a digestive system designed to deal most effectively with young and tender plant parts. It is easier to find the community crops or other plants on the community land reaching the same general growth stage at the same time than the wild plants. This is why in specific seasons and times, elephants choose to feed on the crops which have high pasture concentration per acreage compared to the plants in the wild.

Elephants raiding people’s gardens for food is increasingly becoming common across Uganda as these crops continue to cover a bigger part of the landscape in the wildlife migration corridors and dispersal areas. The replacement of wild plants with human crops in the habitat is mainly due to human population increase and scarcity of land for household agriculture and settlement. The key crops that are eaten to provide the required nutrients by both elephants and people include; Bananas, Millet, Sorghum, Maize. Beans, cassava etc. On the other hand, the people also do cross into the national parks to harvest their traditional foods such as leaves, roots and vines that are equally eaten by elephants. As a result, both the elephants and the people tend to cross to each other’s territory in search for certain foods at the different moments leading them to share the same diet.

Elephants have mastered the farming activities and seasons of people neighboring the respected areas where they live. They seem to calculate the crop seasons through the year or monitor the days and nights to scan the best time to cross to the community gardens. The elephants cross when the crops and other community plants of their choice are most palatable. In most cases, elephant cross at night when the humans/ farmers are not active in the gardens. They cross in their groups called parades, well managed by a matriarch (the old female guide). A matriarch is hereditary selected to lead the group from their grading level of experience and talent. During the process of crossing and raiding the community gardens, Elephants, are able to camouflage and communicate to secure each other and self in case they sense danger from the restrictive humans (garden owners).  Beyond their ability to make a successful intrude to the community gardens, the park rangers normally come in to aid them a friendly eviction from the community gardens back to the park whenever they find resistance beyond their ability to transit back freely.

People living near the national parks in Uganda find a challenge from the elephants feeding on the same food as them. This vice roots the largest part of community wildlife conflict. It leads to unending food shortage and poverty in the in these households dependent on agriculture. To ensure co-existence with elephants, it is advisable for the communities living and practicing agriculture next the national park to engage in farming crops that are not liked by elephants. This will ensure that the community can still harvest and generate income despite the existence of elephants on the same landscape. It is known that crops like onions, simsim, tea, coffee, red Chilli and others are never destroyed by elephants. However, mixing them with small plots of edible crops will still attract elephants since they are good at exploring and remembering. Adaptation to farming crops like these would reverse the elephant community conflict. To reverse the vice further, the community can adopt other livelihoods such as bee keeping on the edges of the park since elephants are scared of bees. In return, the community will be able to harvest honey and other bi-products for income and food. Though it may be costly, digging an elephant trench and use of electricity are yet among the many other strategies that are known to reverse elephant destruction on community crops.