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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Ida Hansen