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Wild science

12 min read

Updated 09 May 2021

Picture of Chris McIntyre

By Chris McIntyre

Managing Director

*A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2021 Bush Telegraph newsletter. You can read our recent newsletters and sign-up to receive these in your inbox on our Bush Telegraph newsletter page.

The vital importance of investment in high-quality scientific research and development has been made clear to the whole world over the last year. Many people’s lives have depended on it.

In this issue of Bush Telegraph, we highlight how science has impacted Africa in three different ways: in its fundamental impact on driving conservation initiatives; in its role in continuing to expand our understanding of wildlife; and most dramatically in its power to save people’s lives.

With gratitude and admiration for scientists out in the field and in laboratories the world over,

An elephant is an elephant, right?

Forest elephants in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Picture credit: Frank af Petersens

Wrong. African elephants are, in fact, a ‘cryptic species’: animals that appear similar but are genetically quite distinct. In Africa, there are two elephant species: the well-known bush or savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the much smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Wildlife DNA specialists have asserted this separation into two species for several decades, but now the global body responsible for monitoring threatened species has adopted the distinction.

Smaller and darker than its savannah relative, the gentle forest elephant is an elusive species found predominantly in the humid rainforests of the Congo basin. With oval ears, straight, pink-tinged tusks, a hairier trunk and a tendency to live in smaller family groups, it is quite distinct from the iconic bush elephant seen on most safaris.

Forest elephants are at significant risk of extinction: their numbers are down a devastating 86% in the last 31 years and their range has been reduced by 30% in the last two decades. The remaining animals face considerable risks and pressures from ivory poaching, habitat loss and human-elephant conflict.

Studies have found that forest and savannah elephants split from each other 5 to 6 million years ago – for context, that’s around the same time that humans separated from chimpanzees. Dr Alfred Roca, a wildlife genetics specialist at the University of Illinois, commented that forest and savannah elephants are likely to display a greater genetic separation than lions and tigers.

Recent surveys by the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature who compile the global ‘Red List’ of at-risk plant and animal species) have confirmed that the two elephant species rarely interact. With savannah elephants preferring the grasslands and forest elephants confining themselves to the rainforests, there have been few opportunities for hybridisation.

In April 2021, the IUCN formally recognised this important species distinction, with significant implications for their conservation. We hear of animals being classed by the IUCN as ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’ all too frequently these days. These designations are important for the species concerned and recognition of the forest elephant’s status as a separate species is crucial for its survival.

Without separate species recognition for forest elephants, their path to extinction in the wild was increasingly likely. Now their reclassification as ‘critically endangered’ should draw attention to the gravity of their plight and encourage further scientific and political initiatives to protect their future. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a brighter chapter in the forest elephant’s story.

Meanwhile, Expert Africa travellers report excellent sightings of bush elephants on most of our safaris – take a look at where they record the highest concentrations of elephant sightings.

Why do gorillas beat their chests?

In male gorilla society, bigger categorically is better. The largest apes rule the roost and enjoy higher social status and greater reproductive success. It turns out King Kong-style chest-pummelling is a key way for them to spread awareness of their size and strength far and wide.

Following a study of 25 male mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s spectacular Volcanoes National Park, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have recently published some interesting discoveries.

They collected and analysed more than 3,000 hours of chest-beating audio, looking at the sound frequency, rate, duration and number of chest pounds, and correlated them with laser-accurate imagery showing the precise size of each gorilla’s back.

They found that while the rate, duration and beat number did not correlate with a gorilla’s size, the sound frequency did. By producing a deeper tone of chest drumming, on account of having larger air sacs near their larynxes, the bigger gorillas are able to accurately convey their size, and dissuade smaller individuals from challenging them, inadvertently or not.

As their chest beats resonate for up to one kilometre through the mountain forest, males powerfully proclaim their physical prowess, mating status and fighting ability without the need for visual confirmation. Researchers believe this strategy avoids unnecessary confrontation, as well as making the deeper-sounding males more attractive to potential mates.

Having the opportunity to watch these powerful and intelligent individuals is an experience that transcends any other wildlife activity we know. Their peaceful demeanour is immediately evident on any encounter: we cannot recommend a visit to the gorillas highly enough. Read about our travellers’ experiences of their gorilla-trekking trips.

Vaccine victories

With hope and rapt attention, we have all witnessed phenomenal scientific collaboration and effort in vaccine development over the last year. But while the monumental global effort to confront COVID-19 has dominated global media, another vaccine breakthrough has the potential to save even more lives – hundreds of thousands a year in fact. For finally there appears to be an effective malaria vaccine on the horizon.

The University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute has recently reported the astonishing news that their R21 malaria vaccine has proved 77% effective in real-world trials.

Malaria currently kills 400,000 people a year, yet there are treatments available and medicines that can largely prevent it. Tragically, almost all these deaths are in poorer communities, without good access to health care, and the majority are of children in sub-Saharan Africa.

To put the significance of these trial results in context, there has only ever been one other approved malaria vaccine, Mosquirix. Its efficiency was low in children (cases reduced by 39%) and so ineffective in infants as to be deemed unusable by the World Health Organisation.

There has never been anything like R21. In Phase 2 trials, the vaccine was given to 450 children in Burkina Faso, which has one of the world’s highest rates of malaria and death from malaria. It proved 77% effective at preventing the parasite-borne disease over the year-long follow-up period, exceeding the WHO’s target of 75%. A more extensive Phase 3 trial is already underway across four countries, involving 4,800 children, aged 5-36 months.

Based on the results so far and the manufacturer’s announcement committing it to the production of 200 million vaccine doses per year, the potential public health impact in Africa of R21 cannot be overstated.

If you’ve been inspired and want to find out more, give us a call or enquire now to speak to an expert.

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