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Tracking Giants

Elephants Alive Re-collaring Wild Elephants

Story by Mike Kendrick May 24th, 2016

Preparation

Elephants Alive have been tracking elephants in the Greater Kruger Area for close to twenty years. The data collected across this time is invaluable in providing a wide landscape understanding of elephant movements to inform long term conservation management. Recently the decision was taken to replace the radio collars on two of the older bulls and a cow before their old collars stop transmitting. The collars are considerable in size and weight but there are no records of an elephant being inconvenienced by one – indeed there’s no evidence of them even trying to remove them. The Elephants Alive team assembled early in the morning for a briefing by wildlife vet Dr Cobus Raath. With individual tasks allocated, the team travelled in 4WD vehicles to the area where the first bull Gower had recently been sighted. Gower gets his name from the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa who administered the funds from the Gower Trust to pay for his first collar. The helicopter, piloted by Jacques Saayman, carrying Cobus and his darting gun was soon overhead and the team waited nervously for the radio call to tell them to move in.

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Into Action with Gower

The radio barked into life and typically Michelle Henley, Elephants Alive’s manager and principle researcher, was first to reach the tranquilized giant. Gower was resting in an awkward position. Nevertheless, the team quickly secured his airway and the old collar was removed.

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Monitoring & Care

Under the ever watchful and experienced eye of Dr. Raath, Gower’s vital signs were constantly monitored, paying particular attention to his blood oxygen levels. Sternum recumbancy can affect an elephant’s breathing when the digestive tract pushes against the diaphragm. In record time, blood and DNA samples were taken to add to the comprehensive data collected on the elephants across this area. Finally, the antidote to the tranquilizer was administered and we waited, willing Gower to recover quickly. Slowly Gower rose to his full height obscured by bushes and wandered away from our vehicles a little drowsy but none the worse for his ordeal.

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Classic'S tale

While half of the team split to find the graceful Classic to recollar, the rest of the team moved up north to recollar one of the cows. All went well despite the undulating terrain and soon the helicopter was homing in on Classic where he had just been located using radio telemetry. It transpired that Classic was shadowing a breeding herd as he was in full musth.

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Once darted, the Elephants Alive team raced to the stranded giant and immediately began replacing the collar and gathering data.

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Rolling In the Deep

With his airway secured and vital signs monitored the decision was taken to roll Classic onto his side. A steel cable was attached to the one tusk and with the whole team pushing, his 6-ton mass was rolled onto his side.

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AN Organ RARely Seen

In this position it was possible to see Classic’s Jacobson’s organ. This is situated in two small dark pits in the roof of an elephant’s mouth. Chemoreceptors in this organ are used to detect pheromones carried by other individuals. The chemicals are transferred to the organ by the “finger” on the tip of the trunk. While the air was heavy with the pungent odour of Classic musth, it was an incredible to see this relatively small organ and realize just how capable it was at driving the movements of this bull who represents one of the largest study animals being tracked by Elephants Alive!

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Among the samples routinely taken are blood, hair and nail clippings, together with stool samples from the digestive system.

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Perfect Recovery

After about 20 minutes at Classic’s mighty side, all the work was completed and the antidote injected. Within a few minutes Classic rocked up onto his feet and stood perfectly displaying his new collar. Success! We left Classic to continue his wanderings knowing that the data collected from him, Gower and the smaller cow up north would further our knowledge of these incredible beasts.

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It is a humbling experience and a real privilege to have had the opportunity to work at such close quarters on these peaceful giants, and also to share our time with veterans like Dr. Cobus Raath and Jacques Saayman. Cobus has darted thousands of elephants while Jacques has flown countless hours. Colin Rowles represents one of the most experienced Wardens in the Associated Private Nature Reserves and conducted all security measures with the greatest efficiency. Bryan Havemann, as Warden of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is thanked for his assistance while collaring Classic on this Reserve. A big thank you to Save the Elephants for helping to fund the collars. Last but not least, thank you to the Elephants Alive team for the hours spent locating the animals before the event and ensuring that all the participating guests had a memorable time.

Footnote: Elephants Alive rely on donations to keep their valuable work and research going. For further information see http://elephantsalive.org/