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An Elephantastic Experience

Chad Cocking | Conservation

Elephants are big animals. Now I bet you are glad you opened this blog to learn such a ground-breaking fact! Whilst this might be a classic example of stating the obvious, I don’t think one ever appreciates just how big an elephant is until you are standing next to one and examining these pachyderms from inches away. Why on earth would one be examining an elephant from a few inches away you may ask, as such an examination would usually be the last thing that said person would see.

The answer to why I was examining an elephant at such close quarters comes from last week when Tristan and I joined the Teams from Elephants Alive and Wild Wonderful World on their latest elephant collaring operation. For those of you that have visited Tanda Tula in the past, there is a chance that you may even have seen one of their collared subjects wandering around the Greater Kruger Park system providing elephant researchers with valuable information that will go some way to ensuring these gentle giants future protection.   

Elephants Alive have been operating in the Greater Kruger for over two decades, and have collared over 200 individual elephants in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Area – an area of conservancies and corridors that covers over 100,000km2. These collared subjects provide a vital insight into the spatial movements of members of the elephant populations as they traverse this vast landscape, using corridors to navigate between human settlements and over international boundaries to get from one conservation area to another. The more we know about elephants, their movements, and their needs, the better we can plan our conservation of elephants to protect one of Africa’s most iconic and important megafaunal species.

A question that often gets asked when we come across a collared elephant relates to how such a collar ends up on the elephant, as one clearly can’t simply walk up to the said elephant and put it over his or her neck…they tend not to like that! Last week we got a first-hand experience of just how this gets done, and it is no simple feat. Fortunately, for the team at Elephants Alive, this was not their first rodeo and within a couple of hours, they had located, immobilized, collared, and remobilized two individual elephants as if it was just another day in the office for them! Yet despite making it look so easy, you could see how much care and passion the whole team had for these animals, and it was a real treat to be a part of the operation.

The operation involves a team of researchers, a wildlife veterinarian, a wildlife helicopter pilot (with a helicopter), reserve conservationists to protect these potentially dangerous operations, as well as a host of support crews to make sure that everything runs smoothly, and that the elephant can be back on its feet as soon as possible. All elements of this operation cost money, and this is where Elephants Alive relies on the support of sponsors and donors from around the world. This is where Wild Wonderful World comes in; they connect passionate people to the wild through intentional safari experiences and empower conservation efforts with their dedicated wildlife fund. This particular collaring operation was sponsored by one of their long-time supporters who contributed towards the funds required for not only the collar but also for the operation itself. This donor was then able to join the team and participate in the operation, giving him a once-in-a-lifetime experience, whilst contributing to the long-term survival of the elephants of the Greater Kruger.

So what does the operation entail? The first part was finding some subjects to collar – fortunately, the area around Nkhari Homestead was full of elephants, so that didn’t take long. The ground team with the vet went ahead and arrived in the area just as the pilot with another vet made an entrance in their R44 helicopter; with the assistance of Ronny Makukule (and his remarkable ability to identify elephants he studies from memory!), they located on their target bull and maneuvered into position to allow the other vet to fire off a tranquilizing dart into the rump of the elephant bull. The helicopter then moved off to a distant position where they could observe the bull until the anesthetic kicked in and the bull fell to the ground. Once he was down, it was all hands on deck as the ground team made a rapid approach to make sure that the bull collapsed in a way that would not interfere with his breathing; a stick was placed in the truck to keep his airway open and then the work began. Blood, faecal, and hair samples were taken, measurements were made and most importantly the collar was fitted. The collar itself was something that had to be able to withstand the elements (and elephants) without causing any discomfort or displeasure to the elephant. Once sized and fitted, counter-weights were inserted and the GPS tracker was activated and tested. All the while, the status of the elephant was monitored, water was poured over the animal to keep his temperature down, and we all got to see, touch and feel parts of a wild elephant that we would never otherwise get to touch. The smoothness of the grass notch at the tip of his tusk. The toughness of the hairs on his tail. The fragility of the skin on the ears – so completely different from the calloused and impenetrable hide on his trunk. On the ears themselves, one could see the incredible network of arteries that pump the body’s blood through the ears every 20 minutes, and by placing one’s hand on these arteries, one could feel the strength with which the blood was constantly being pushed into the ears – such a unique and fascinating experience! The underside of the feet was hard, but not as hard as one would expect. Studying the toenails made me realize that there is a market for a pedicurist for these elephants, as those nails don’t get looked after well at all.

Within a short while, all the tests and fittings had been done, and it was time to wake up the sleeping giant once again. Once the team was all safely back in the vehicles and the chopper was good to go, the vet administered the reversal for the anesthetic, and within a minute or two the elephant’s head was up, and a gentle sway or two later he was back on his feet and wandering around (and probably wondering about what on earth he had drunk to cause that reaction!). Once the vets were happy that all was in order, we left the scene and went to look for the second individual to repeat the same process like it was just a walk in the park.

It was a most remarkable experience for Tristan and me, and we are grateful to Elephants Alive, Wild Wonderful World, and their sponsor, as well as the Timbavati for allowing us to partake in this operation. We now look forward to keeping track of where the two newest research subjects wander, and to see what they can teach us about the lives of elephants so that we can keep on enjoying their presence in this vast Kruger landscape.

So, be sure to look out for some of these individual elephants on your next trip to Tanda Tula. Until next time…





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