Research article

Landscape Ecology

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 217-234

First online:

The response of elephants to the spatial heterogeneity of vegetation in a Southern African agricultural landscape

  • Amon MurwiraAffiliated withDepartment of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Zimbabwe Email author 
  • , Andrew K. SkidmoreAffiliated withInternational Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC)

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Abstract

Based on the agricultural landscape of the Sebungwe in Zimbabwe, we investigated whether and how the spatial distribution of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) responded to spatial heterogeneity of vegetation cover based on data of the early 1980s and early 1990s. We also investigated whether and how elephant distribution responded to changes in spatial heterogeneity between the early 1980s and early 1990s. Vegetation cover was estimated from a normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI). Spatial heterogeneity was estimated from a new approach based on the intensity (i.e., the maximum variance exhibited when a spatially distributed landscape property such as vegetation cover is measured with a successively increasing window size or scale) and dominant scale (i.e., the scale or window size at which the intensity is displayed). We used a variogram to quantify the dominant scale (i.e., range) and intensity (i.e., sill) of NDVI based congruent windows (i.e., 3.84 km × 3.84 km in a 61 km × 61 km landscape). The results indicated that elephants consistently responded to the dominant scale of spatial heterogeneity in a unimodal fashion with the peak elephant presence occurring in environments with dominant scales of spatial heterogeneity of around 457–734 m. Both the intensity and dominant scale of spatial heterogeneity predicted 65 and 68% of the variance in elephant presence in the early 1980s and in the early 1990s respectively. Also, changes in the intensity and dominant scale of spatial heterogeneity predicted 61% of the variance in the change in elephant distribution. The results imply that management decisions must take into consideration the influence of the levels of spatial heterogeneity on elephants in order to ensure elephant persistence in agricultural landscapes.

Keywords

African elephant Dominant scale Intensity NDVI Spatial heterogeneity Windowed variogram