In an ideal world, elephants would not need collars. They would just be roaming freely without human intervention. But that is becoming increasingly difficult in our world today. Collars can help protect elephants.
The development of elephant collars has come far. The first collars relied solely on radio waves. In her book “Silent Thunder – The Hidden Voice of Elephants” Dr Katy Payne describes how they tracked elephants in the 1980s, using two antennas, a map and string:
“…two pins in the map, at the sites of the tracking antennae. We tied a thread about two feet long to each pin…a scout would stand at the base of a tall tower that had a directional antenna mounted on its top…He’d put on headphones, which were connected, via a long cable, to the antenna. Now he’d slowly rotate a crank that turned both the antenna on top of the tower and a needle on a large horizontal compass in front of him. As the antenna started to point toward the elephant the scout would begin to hear beeping in his ears. Now he’d turn the crank very slowly. The closer he came to the exact direction of the elephant, the louder the beeps, and the needle named the direction from the tower to the beeping collar…somebody else was doing the same at the institute tracking station seven kilometres to the south, and getting a slightly different direction…Then we tightened the threads along the bearing to the chosen elephant from both antennae. The spot where the strings crossed gave us the elephant’s location.”
Today, the collars still transmit via radio frequencies. These are still picked up by a receiver and an antenna. But these are small, portable and fits neatly into a backpack. No strings and maps are necessary. The signal can sometimes be distorted by obstacles in the landscape, like hills/mountains, gullies, dense vegetation etc. Another advance is GPS transmitters in the collars. These send a signal to a satellite, which transmits it to a computer system. Or to an app on your phone. A few minutes after the collar sends off the location, will it pop up on the system. It is accurate down to a few meters. In this system, we can set up virtual fences, also known as geofences, in areas where the elephants are unwanted, such as along busy roads or train tracks, perimeter fences or neighbouring farms and villages. If a collared elephant is in one of these virtual geofences when the collar updates, an automatic alert is sent to a team of people on the ground, who can respond and prevent dangerous situations. Technology is amazing!
As amazing as technology is, it sometimes does not work. Updates do not come through or are delayed. As with the radio frequencies, this can be caused by obstacles in the landscape, but also if there is a heavy layer of mud on the transmitter or the elephant is lying down sleeping. It does not happen often. Most of the times you get a ping on your computer or phone. The new system works a lot better, faster and more accurately than what Dr Katy Payne had to deal with in the 1980s.
An elephant collaring usually starts as early in the day as possible. The high temperatures in the middle of the day can be dangerous to a sedated giant. A helicopter with a pilot, a vet and someone who knows the identity of the elephant takes off in search of the elephant. The experienced pilot will be able to separate the desired elephant from other elephants, as well as herd the elephant away from inaccessible areas if necessary. The vet shoots the tranquilizer dart with a gun from the air, at times leaning out of the helicopter only secured by a harness.As soon as the elephant is down, the ground crew rushes in. One team focusses on getting the collar on. This involves manoeuvring one belt strap underneath the elephant’s neck, ensuring that the transmitter is positioned correctly and that the straps are not too tight around the neck, and securing the counterweight in between the straps with screws and bolts. Excess length on the screws are cut off and filed smooth, while surplus straps are cut away. A second team is measuring the elephant. A collaring operation is a unique opportunity to get measurements that would otherwise be impossible to get. A third team is focussing on taking samples from the elephant. This team usually consists of the vet and/or veterinary students getting experience and collecting blood samples, DNA samples, faecal samples, respiration rate etc.Everything is done in 30 minutes. Everyone scampers off to waiting vehicles. The only one left is the vet, who administers the reversal drug and makes sure that the elephant gets up again safely. It usually takes a few minutes for the elephant to get up, get its bearings again and scurry off to find either its family or associates.
Collaring an elephant is an invasive, risky and expensive procedure. Invasive and risky because it involves darting and tranquilising an elephant. Expensive because it requires a helicopter, a vet, drugs, and the collar itself. The collar consists of a transmitter and a battery in a case, a counterweight and a belt. The collar goes around the elephant’s neck with the transmitter resting on top, where the signal will be strongest, while the weight hangs between the two ends of the belt under the elephant’s chin. It is fairly heavy, weighing around 12 kg (26,5 lbs). This would be heavy for a human to carry around on its neck, but not for an adult elephant weighing up to 7 tonnes – though it will still be an irritation for the elephant. Unfortunately, it is a necessary exercise these days.
Bearing this in mind, ERP have collared elephants for a few different reasons. Being able to track the elephants helps us keep the elephants safe with regard to poaching and human-elephant conflicts. One example is the work ERP did at a reserve where four elephant bulls were breaking fences. We collared three of the four elephant bulls and monitored them day and night. If the elephants came close to a fence, we would get there and position ourselves between them and the fence. In most cases, just being there, without any aggression, prevented the bulls from going through the fence.
The data on the elephants’ movements are stored on the system and can be used to determine the elephants’ core and home ranges, predict where they will go depending on the season and food availability, and determine “refuge areas” where the elephants can go to have a rest from human interference – and reserves can respect this and make sure that new roads are not put through these areas.
The movement data can also be used to determine hotspots and find potential weak points on fences in human-elephant conflicts. For instance, fences across rivers are often a weak point as the elephants want to follow the water and the lush vegetation along the river, or a fence bordering a maize farm, a tasty and irresistible treat for most elephants. By knowing this, we can warn the neighbours, reinforce the fence with modification that will in most instances keep the elephants from breaking through, and be more vigilant when they are in those particular areas.
Collared elephants can teach us a great deal about them and their conspecifics. For instance, collared elephants moving between pockets of protected areas can give an indication of the best place to set area aside for wildlife corridors. This is much more accurate than people looking at maps and guesstimating where the elephants might choose to move. We do believe that elephants should only be collared if it is in the best interest of the elephants. And in most cases, this will be in areas where humans and elephants cross paths.