Aim Large, charismatic and wide-ranging animals are often employed as focal species for prioritizing landscape linkages in threatened ecosystems (i.e. ‘connectivity conservation’), but there have been few efforts to assess empirically whether focal species co-occur with other species of conservation interest within potential linkages. We evaluated whether the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), a world-recognized flagship species, would serve as an appropriate focal species for other large mammals in a potential linkage between two major protected area complexes.
Location A 15,400 km2 area between the Ruaha and Selous ecosystems in central Tanzania, East Africa.
Methods We used walking transects to assess habitat, human activity and co-occurrence of elephants and 48 other large mammal species (> 1 kg) at 63 sites using animal sign and direct sightings. We repeated a subset of transects to estimate species detectability using occupancy modelling. We used logistic regression and AIC model selection to characterize patterns of elephant occurrence and assessed correlation of elephant presence with richness of large mammals and subgroups. We considered other possible focal species, compared habitat-based linear regression models of large mammal richness and used circuit theory to examine potential connectivity spatially.
Results Elephants were detected in many locations across the potential linkage. Elephant presence was highly positively correlated with the richness of large mammals, as well as ungulates, carnivores, large carnivores and species > 45 kg in body mass (‘megafauna’). Outside of protected areas, both mammal richness and elephant presence were negatively correlated with human population density and distance from water. Only one other potential focal species was more strongly correlated with species richness than elephants, but detectability was highest for elephants.
Main conclusions Although African elephants have dispersal abilities that exceed most other terrestrial mammals, conserving elephant movement corridors may effectively preserve habitat and potential landscape linkages for other large mammal species among Tanzanian reserves.