ERP has monitored several different elephants and elephant situations to date. Apart from the standard monitoring of elephants’ behaviour and movements, there have been some special cases along the way.
One was monitoring an elephant bull with a tendency to chase vehicles and to keep him out of trouble, as well as figuring out why he did it. Another was keeping four elephant bulls from breaking fences and finding out the underlying reasons behind this behaviour. We have also been monitoring elephants relocated to an area where they have been absent for at least 120 years.
The aim of the elephant monitoring determines the monitoring method. If the aim is to determine the number of elephants, their range and their habitat use, then the monitoring method will consist of counts, either from the ground or from the air. This can involve permanent transect lines with repeat visit, direct observations and habitat assessments. If the aim is to investigate social structure and the elephants’ behaviour, then the monitoring will consist of direct observations of the elephants, identifying each member and their relations and backgrounds.
Monitoring elephants in direct observations takes time. It takes time to collect data. More importantly, it takes time to be allowed to collect the data. The elephants have to accept your presence to a degree where your presence is not bothering them or affecting their behaviour.
Doing your homework beforehand can help. This can be learning as much as possible about the elephants’ past experiences, for instance their exposure to poaching or hunting, or whether they have been fighting with other elephants. Knowledge on their temperaments and behaviour to humans also helps, such as whether they are used to vehicles and/or people on foot, and whether they charge or flee from them. By knowing this, you know what situation you are going into. It means that you can plan the monitoring and adapt your behaviour accordingly. In still other situations, it might be best to know as little as possible beforehand and allow you to observe and assess without prejudice.
Getting elephants to accept you can be a slow process. An acceptance is required for us to monitor the gentle giants with any meaningful level of accuracy. It starts with getting to know each other – both the monitor getting to know the elephants on an individual basis, but also for the elephants to get to know the monitor.
The monitor needs to know the elephants to collect the data. If the monitor is unable to identify each elephant and know how they are related to each other, then the data collected will be lacking the details that are important when observing behaviour. This is one of the reasons why naming the elephants is helpful. It is probably even more important that the elephants get to know the monitor. Elephants have exceptional memories, which means it is always important to be as non-threatening as possible. The process of getting to know each other should be done at a speed which allows for respecting any signs of uneasiness in the elephants – and with the monitor acting accordingly. If the elephants are not comfortable having the monitor near them, they might either leave (which means no data), charge the monitor (which means no data and a life-threatening situation for the monitor), or the data will be corrupted by the unwanted presence of the observer.
Compiling an elephant identification kit with photographs and characteristics of each individual elephant is actually a really good way for the monitor and the elephants to get to know one another.
Most reserves in South Africa are on the smaller side, considering the vast areas elephants used to traverse freely and the number of elephants that used to be in these areas. So, in most cases, reserve management should already know the number of elephants, the sex distribution, the age classes, and the history of the elephants, but it is not always the case. In these situations, it is necessary to start with an open mind and no assumptions and collect as much data, both past and present, as possible. All reserves should have staff dedicated to elephant monitoring and management. This staff would be responsible for monitoring the elephants with regard to health, wounds/injuries, stress, behaviour, human pressure etc. and react promptly to anything negatively affecting them, as well as proactively, by preparing for possible issues such as budgeting for unforeseen veterinary treatments, fence maintenance etc. In an ideal world, this would be common place – in the real world, many reserves do not.
Elephants are high-maintenance animals, because of their intelligence, size, tendency for roaming, but also due to their sensitivity to human interference and pressure. Reserves need to make ends meet as a minimum, but a revenue is usually expected. This can lead to the notion of cutting corners and adopting a laissez-faire approach, but that can quickly lead to preventable, minor issues becoming unsurmountable problems. In these situations, elephants should be regarded as long-term investment – needing nurture and protection to thrive, and to be a source of revenue. Some are in it mainly for the business, others are in it for the love of nature. Regardless, an understanding of elephants and a comprehensive plan for monitoring and management is just good business and ethics.