Posts tagged elephant monitoring
Behind the scenes: Making elephant identification kits

When ERP moves elephants to a new reserve, we do not just drop them off and leave them. We do our best to help the new reserve and the elephants to have the best start possible.

Observing elephants and collecting data on characteristics and behaviour for ID-kit. Photo Ida Hansen

Observing elephants and collecting data on characteristics and behaviour for ID-kit. Photo Ida Hansen

Before translocating the elephants, we do site visits to ensure that the reserve is suitable for elephants and to assist the reserve with any uncertainties or questions they may have. After the release, we help the reserve by monitoring the elephants for at least 3 months and help them get familiar with the monitoring system for the collar. We also compile an identification kit of the elephants.

Our elephant identification kit contains useful information about elephants in general, such as recommended sighting procedures and behavioural displays and gestures to be particularly aware of. Most importantly, we gather as much information as possible on the elephants.

We investigate their history and gather information on any major events that they have experienced. This can be previous relocations, injuries and whether they were darted and treated for these, any deaths in the family group, negative experiences with humans and so on. Knowing these events, when it happened, and who it happened to is very important. Elephants are long-lived, cognitive beings and past events can influence their behaviour and temperament in the future. By having this knowledge, the reserves are given the best possible insights into the elephants. The reserve will be able to foresee and prevent situations that could potentially become a problem for both elephants and reserve.

Red circles mark the characteristics on this elephant’s right side. Photo Ida Hansen

Red circles mark the characteristics on this elephant’s right side. Photo Ida Hansen

We also compile a family tree, a visual tool helping the reserve to understand the internal bonds and relationships within the family group. Understanding as much as possible about the elephants and their relations will provide the reserve with the best basis for making management decisions that are in the best interest of the elephants’ wellbeing.

All parts of the identification kit are important, but one of the most useful aspects is the identification kit itself. We make a profile for each of the elephants. These profiles contain information on that particular elephant, such as name, age, nearest relations, and temperament / general behaviour. It also includes the measurements we took during the capture. These measurements can be repeated if an elephant ever needs to be darted again and it will track the development of the elephants.

Each profile has photos and sketches of the elephants from different angles. These highlight each individual’s defining characteristics, for example old scars on the body, a bump on the trunk, notches and holes on the ears, vein patterns on the ears, and the shape of the tusks.

Field notes and sketch of characteristics. Photo Ida Hansen

Field notes and sketch of characteristics. Photo Ida Hansen

Being able to identify each individual is very important. One elephant may have past experiences that mean it will be sensitive to certain situations. By knowing which one it is and what the history is, unfortunate and dangerous situations can be avoided. Another possible situation where accurate identification is necessary is if one of the elephants is injured and needs veterinary assistance. Being able to identify which elephant is injured is very important in these situations.

It can take a while to collect all of this information, especially when compiling the individual profiles. We need to have clear photos of the elephants from different angles. Most importantly, we need to understand that individual’s temperament and behaviour, before we can convey this information to the reserve. This means that compiling an identification kit requires many hours in the company of the elephants - and in as many different situations as possible to get the full impression of the elephants. Fortunately, it is one of those situations where you learn while doing. Time spent with elephants is never wasted.


The next blog post in this series will take you behind the scenes of how we name elephants.


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Samara: Discovering the girls

The two new bulls, Kahle and Mvula, have spent their first weeks exploring their new home at Samara Private Game Reserve. Separate at first, it took them a week to settle in and eventually meet up. They have spent most of their time together since then.

Kahle and Mvula exploring their new home at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Kahle and Mvula exploring their new home at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Penny Pistorius

As for the group of female elephants at Samara Private Game reserve, they had not seen or heard any bulls for a year. Naturally, everyone was excited to see how the elusive female elephants would react to having elephant bull in their area again.

Kahle and Mvula were released on the western side of the reserve. But they seem to have settled on the eastern side, in an area with dense vegetation on the valley floor below the mountain known by the locals as Mark’s Pass. Here, they have plenty of delicious vegetation in the Cabbage trees (Cussonia spicata) and Jacket plums (Pappea capensis) and waterholes close by for drinking and bathing.

Cabbage trees, like the one being reached for here, are a favourite of elephants. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Cabbage trees, like the one being reached for here, are a favourite of elephants. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Nombeko and her family on the other hand prefer the mountain slopes. During the past year, these females have become quite the accomplished mountain climbers, spending most of their time on the mountain. Although the slopes can be steep, they are covered in Cabbage trees and Spekbooms (Portulacaria afra).

There has been a few times where we thought that Kahle and Mvula had met up with Nombeko and the others. The first time was in the first few days after the bulls were released. Late at night watching the updates coming in, it looked like the collars on Kahle and Nomvula were both heading to the same dam. But the GPS showed Nomvula changing direction shortly before ‘making first contact’. A near-miss. Then in mid-December and early January it looked like it might have happened. But we cannot be sure. All the “maybe”-encounters happened during the night with no curious onlookers around.

Late January we got proof that all the elephants at Samara have finally meet each other. Penny and her trainee, Mzi, have been following and observing the bulls since they arrived. And one day, they found Kahle with Nombeko and the other females. They seemed to have met in the middle, on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Kahle and Mvula having after a mudbath. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Kahle and Mvula having after a mudbath. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Mzi was instantly convinced that one of the bulls had joined the female group. It took Penny a bit longer to be persuaded. As always, Penny was very thoroughly going through Kahle’s different characteristics and checking them on the elephant that she could see in the distance. As he moved through the trees and shrubs, she got a better view of him and concluded that it was Kahle with the females. He was not in the middle of the family group, but rather feeding alongside them in their vicinity. A cautious move considering the skittish nature of the female elephants.

Mvula was nowhere to be seen. Both Penny and Mzi scanned the mountain slopes around the elephants, but found no sign of Mvula. It can be very difficult to spot an elephant, when you are far away on a densely vegetated mountain side. It requires eyes like an eagle, patience and a great deal of luck to be looking in the exact spot where the elephant becomes visible in the green sea of trees and shrubs.

Kahle eventually left Nombeko and the others and went in the direction of one of the dams. Penny and Mzi went around to meet him there. After he had been drinking for about 15 minutes, Mvula showed up. We do not know where he had been. It seems likely that he had been in the same area as the others, but maybe just further away from them.

Anything could have transpired, when the two bulls first made contact with Nombeko and the other females. Albeit we could have learned a lot from witnessing the initial meeting, it appears they are off to a good start.

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Watch the video taken earlier this year of Kahle and Mvula with the female group at one of Samara’s dams. The video was taken by one of Samara’s guides, Julius Mkhize. 

https://www.facebook.com/SamaraKaroo/videos/337309286867363/


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Samara: 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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Samara: 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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