Tracking mountain elephants
 Ntsindiso Monkangeni with the telemetry during our search for the mountain elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

Ntsindiso Monkangeni with the telemetry during our search for the mountain elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

Part of ERP's task at Samara Private Game Reserve is to teach two interns (Ntsindiso and Mzimasi) about elephants and elephant behaviour. The two interns graduated from the SA College for Tourism Tracker Academy (based on Samara) in December 2017. Now, they are interns at the lodge and help they guides by tracking animals on game drives, while at the same time learning about guiding. It is difficult to track animals on the hard surface of the Karoo, but they have been trained well.

The best way to learn about elephants is to be with elephants. And as the elephants at Samara have become mountain elephants that means climbing mountains to get to them. So, Ntsindiso and Mzimasi are coming with me. With us, we have a telemetry to track the collared elephant and a backpack with water, radio, and binoculars. It is not much, but it will be heavy enough during the hike.

At the base of the mountain we use the telemetry to get a general indication of where the elephants are and then we start walking. The first bit is not bad. It is fairly flat and relatively open. It is also black rhino habitat, so we are keeping our eyes and ears open for any signs. As we start climbing, it quickly becomes steeper and challenging. Every now and then we stop and get a new reading on the telemetry, making sure that we are still heading in the right direction.

Ntsindiso and Mzimasi have only seen elephants a couple of times and never up close. During our climb, before we get too close to the elephants, we talk about elephants. About the social structure, their intelligence, their senses, their strength, their memory, how important it is to treat them with respect. And about how elephants communicate, and that there is a whole new language that Ntsindiso and Mzimasi will have to learn - elephant language.

 Mzimasi Dlakavu showing where the elephants barkstripped a cabbage tree. Photo: Ida Hansen

Mzimasi Dlakavu showing where the elephants barkstripped a cabbage tree. Photo: Ida Hansen

The closer we get to where the elephants are, the fresher the signs of the elephants become. Tracks from early in the morning. Broken off twigs and leaves. Still warm and moist dung. We do not discuss elephants anymore. We walk as silently as possible in the thick vegetation. We snap our fingers to get each other's attention and point and whisper. We end up about 15-20 meters from the closest elephant. We are only seperated by a single line of bushes. The vegetation is so thick that there is no visual of the elephant. We can only make out a bit of movement from a swinging tail and a trunk pulling off leaves.

An elephant rumbles not far from us. And another one answers with a rumble. In a whisper I explain that it is the elephants communicating. Ntsindiso shakes his head and says it must be a game viewer on the top of the mountain - where we almost are. When I insist that it is the elephants and another rumble starts, Ntsindiso's face breaks into a delightful smile. And so does mine - the sound of elephant rumbles is always a favourite of mine.

The elephants must have heard us approaching. Although we were doing our best to be quiet, we did make noise. They are fairly calm and do not move at first. Only when the wind changes direction and they get our scent, do they move away relatively slowly but determined. We wait, giving them some space before we follow them. Ahead of us we can see a cabbage tree swaying, as branches are being pulled off. As we come around a bush, we get a partial visual of three of the elephants.

We stay with them as long as we can without stressing them. Just before midday we leave them. This is the warmest part of the day, and the elephants prefer to rest in peace in the shade of a tree during this time.

 Like finding a needle in a haystack... The elephants on the mountain side in Samara. Photo: Ida Hansen

Like finding a needle in a haystack... The elephants on the mountain side in Samara. Photo: Ida Hansen

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Elephants exploring their new home
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The six female elephants at Samara Private Game Reserve are doing well. Since their arrival they have been carefully exploring their new home...

The first two months they stayed near the river, close to where they were released. Here, they had everything they needed - fresh water, plenty of forage, safety, and shade. They spent the warmest hours of the day resting in the shade of the sweet thorn acacias and peppertrees along the river. In the cooler parts of the day, they went exploring along the river - occasionally venturing further away from their comfort zone. These adventures were relatively short, and they would soon return to the dense vegetation at the river.

 Spot the elephant... Photo: Ida Hansen

Spot the elephant... Photo: Ida Hansen

Now, the elephants have become mountain elephants. From staying in the lowland near the river, they have now ventured up the mountain sides. They have become quite the skillful mountaineers, carving new paths through the dense vegetation and are manoeuvring up and down and along the mountain sides.

On the the mountain they have found a natural spring with clean and cool water, some shady resting spots, and a smorgasbord of delicious trees - cabbage trees, spekbooms, jacketplums etc. All of these trees are very palatable to elephants - for them it is possibly the closest things to candy in the veld.

The job of an elephant monitor requires observation of elephants. Trying to find them from the base of the mountain using binoculars is not enough. So, the elephant monitor has become a mountaineer as well. Climbing up rolling rocks, navigating through dense vegetation, ducking through bushes, and trying to keep up with the elephants. The elephants move quickly, adeptly, and relatively silently in the mountain. One would think that they have never been anywhere else.

The elephants are still settling in, exploring, and adjusting to their new home. And they will continue to do so for a while. There is still much of the reserve to explore. And we will continue to explore with them...

 The family group enjoying a mudbath, while they were still in the lowland. Photo: Ida Hansen

The family group enjoying a mudbath, while they were still in the lowland. Photo: Ida Hansen

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Elephants return to the Karoo after 100 years
 Kester Vickery busy on the ground checking on the darted elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

Kester Vickery busy on the ground checking on the darted elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

Early on the morning of the 31st of October 2017 the ERP team arrives at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve just outside of Grahamstown. We are here to assist with an elephant translocation. As the sun starts to rise, the helicopter is up in the air searching for a suitable group of elephants. It only takes about 30 minutes before a group has been located. The helicopter pushes the elephants towards an open area. Only then does the veterinarian start darting the elephants one by one from the air.

 A lone elephant bull is approaching to see what is going on. Photo: Ida Hansen

A lone elephant bull is approaching to see what is going on. Photo: Ida Hansen

The elephants have hardly hit the ground before the team from Conservation Solutions led by Kester Vickery is on the ground busy with the elephants, the harness, the big trucks, and the transportation crates.

In this organised chaos, an elephant bull is slowly approaching from a distance. The commotion has peaked his curiosity. As he gets closer, one of the reserve's vehicles cuts through his path to the sedated females. After a short chase, the curious elephant bull moves away.

 

Within two hours, a family group of six female elephants has been lifted up into the transportation crate and the truck is starting its journey to Samara Private Game Reserve. The drive between the two reserves is normally only around three hours, but it will take the translocation truck twice as long. The truck is accompanied by Kester Vickery, who will keep the elephants mildly sedated throughout the transport to ensure that the elephants will arrive safely with limited stress.

 Dereck Milburn from ERP assisting in loading the elephants on the flatbed truck. Photo: Ida Hansen

Dereck Milburn from ERP assisting in loading the elephants on the flatbed truck. Photo: Ida Hansen

The translocation truck and the ERP team arrive at Samara Private Game Reserve just after 13 o'clock. The last stretch to the release site is on a dirt road winding its way to a valley hidden between mountains. Samara Private Game Reserve has prepared a release site with a ramp for the elephants. The release site is in an open areas with lush, green grass, dotted with sweet thorn acacias, and a river close by.

 The matriarch is the first of the elephants to leave the truck and enter Samara. Photo: Ida Hansen

The matriarch is the first of the elephants to leave the truck and enter Samara. Photo: Ida Hansen

As the doors of the translocation crate opens, the matriarch is the first to appear. She takes the group's first steps down the ramp and into their new home. One by one, the elephants leave the crate. They follow the matriarch, who is waiting for them in between some nearby trees. Here, they gather in a bunch a little dazed and confuces. A rumble passes through the family. After a few minutes, the matriarch, followed by the rest of her family, walk away from the ramp and in between the trees heading towards the river. They are quickly out of sight. The only way to determine their direction is an occasional rumble and the sound of a branch being broken off a tree.

 One last look back before joining the rest of her family in their new home. Photo: Ida Hansen

One last look back before joining the rest of her family in their new home. Photo: Ida Hansen

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Ida Hansen