All posts by Sarah Smuts

A Will to Live

By Dr. Michelle Henley

Matambu

Most people who are part of the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) have come to know Matambu. He is a true gentle giant in every sense of the word. Sometimes he bestows a great honor on us by contact rumbling when he senses us. Possibly, we have visited him frequently enough since first sighting him on 16 June 2005 or due to his almost complete blindness he has come to recognize the sound of our research vehicle and the scent of its passengers. During the annual aerial census, Matambu was seen walking closely on the heels of a younger bull in order for him to swiftly weave his way through the bush. We had often found him in the company of Whispers who protectively charged at us when we immobilized his companion for whatever reason, uncertain if we were meaning him harm.

In May of this year, we thought we were going to lose Matambu after a severe infection near the base of his tail and his underparts, probably after being attacked by another bull. We turned to Wildlifevets (Drs. Ben Muller and Joel Alves) to treat his wounds three times. A deep sadness hung over Elephants Alive when we were told during the last treatment that we needed to let him pass on. As we mentally prepared ourselves, Matambu had other plans and a clear will to live as permit delays were long enough for him to slowly show improvement. Almost six months after his injury, he is still thin and has a less severe infection but the flushing green grass will hopefully give him the kick-start he needs to boost his immune system and fight off the infection. We are delighted to be approaching the festive season and the New Year with this special elephant. Keep fighting Matambu, as we need your continued existence to bring us added joy!

Rhandzekile

In 2009 Rhandzekile, meaning ‘Loved’ in Shangaan, was first sighted on Ntsiri in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve as a young sub adult cow. Through the years, people who sight her have been shocked at how she has kept going. She has on occasion popped up in the APNR and now 10 years later she has a calf at foot and is clearly lactating. The hole in her forehead recently looked as if it was oozing puss so we again called Wildlifevets to the rescue. They suspected that the handicap was congenital. Miraculously, she does only 2 % of her breathing through her trunk while the rest is audibly done through the hole in her forehead. After her examination and some booster injections, she moved out of Balule Private Nature Reserve all the way down to Skukuza in a month, clearly showing us that her handicap does not hold her back in anyway.

Rhandzekile has the company of her family and as Matambu has his younger guardians that come and go, we are left to wonder who in Rhandzekile’s family will be helping her to drink by placing their water-filled trunks in her mouth? So it is in the life of elephants. They care for each other and sometimes you are privileged enough to get a glimpse into their world where strong friendships give them a will to live.

Thank you to all the landowners of the APNR for reporting sightings of this cow. We would like to monitor her more closely and fit a collar so your sightings are valuable. Thank you to the Wardens and especially Ian Nowak or helping with the location of this cow for examination

Michelle wins SANParks Kudu Award!

Elephants Alive is delighted to announce that Dr Michelle Henley, Director, Co-founder and Principal Researcher, has won the prestigious 2019 SANParks Kudu Award for Women in Conservation.
This award recognises and celebrates women that are ground breakers in the area of conservation, environmental education, tourism and socio-economic development areas. In presenting this award, the aim is also to raise awareness to other women of opportunities available in conservation, tourism and socio-economic issues relating to SANParks mandate.

Our Landscape’s Great Explorers

By Anka Bedetti (Elephants Alive Tracking Projects Manager)

Study Elephant Cow, Summer.

Elephants in the Greater Kruger area are part of an open population roaming freely in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTCA) and teach us that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to fully understanding their movements. Elephants Alive has collared many elephants over the past 20 years, allowing us to peek into their world. They have proven to be amazing survivors, adapting to the ever changing seasons and a global growing human presence. The following few examples show the magnitude of their travels throughout our landscape of 35,000 km2 of protected land and beyond.

Example of elephant movement across the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTCA) during the wet summer months (October to March)

The wet summer months (October to March) is “elephant exploration time” as they are no longer restricted by low quality/quantity vegetation and water availability. This is well illustrated by the maps.

Example of elephant movement across the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTCA) during the dry winter months (April to September)

An elephant cow called Summer and her family have been followed by the Elephants Alive team since 2006. They are by far our greatest travelling family unit, enjoying their annual trips to the southern part of Kruger mostly in the Skukuza area but also going all the way down to Berg-en-Dal.

Summer and her family

Young bulls are known to be the greatest explorers, and nothing is more far from the truth than the two bulls we collared in 2016, Elon and Induna, traveling great distances, back and forth, between the Associated Private Nature Reserves and the northern part of Kruger during the wet months. Interestingly, it seems that Elon calls the Associated Private Nature Reserve (APNR) home, whereas Induna prefers spending time up in the northern Kruger during the dryer months (April to September) which could indicate that he is originally from there.

Merlin’s trajectory across Kruger, Limpopo and Banhine National Parks

In Limpopo National Park, one of our 20 collared bulls called Merlin, out-did everyone. Besides occasionally visiting Kruger National Park, he suddenly moved across to Banhine National Park in May 2018 to return to Limpopo National Park in January 2019, travelling a total distance of 5544.77km within a year. He showed us potential elephant corridors between protected areas that are crucial to integrate into elephant management and species protection plans as poaching is still represents a high risk in Mozambique. The growing human population has fragmented many species habitat, and elephants have shown us that their incredible memory is key to know when and where it is safe and adapt accordingly to maximise their chances of survival.

Being aware of the great travellers elephants are should add a whole new dimension to elephant encounters in our landscape, as one should always wonder where they just came from, where they are heading and what next they may be up to.

Collaring elephants in Gilé National Reserve – wilderness at its best!

by Dr. Michelle Henley

Credit: Julie Kern

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left, o let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (Inversnaid 1881)

There is a special kind of peace to be found in the company of many trees. The purity of air is an added blessing given by the surrounding oxygen-producing and sunlight-seeking aspiring trees. I marvel at the diversity of the stem shapes, trying to follow them with my eyes to the upper crowns where the patterned blue sky is largely hidden by the chlorophyll puzzle of many leaf shapes. Alessandro Fusari (the responsible FFS-IGF Foundation Technical Advisor), walks us through the Miombo Forest of Gilé National Reserve in Mozambique. The grass is tall and rank, the forest vast and seemingly endless. We have come here to find elephants to collar.

Credit: Julie Kern

Alessandro is a wealth of information about the area and its history. He has known this jewel for 20 years. Before the magic of the forests envelops us, we turn back in anticipation of the landing helicopter so the operation can start. We all realise that this is not going to be an easy task as the dambos (natural open patches in the woodlands filled with grasses, rushes and sedges) are few and far between, offering very little opportunities for the helicopter to land. The dense canopy can easily conceal a herd of wily elephants.

Credit: Julie Kern

However, we could not wish for a more experienced team under the meticulous planning of Alessandro. We have Drs. Thomas Prin (Project Manager for FFS-IGF), Joao Almeida (Wildlife Veterinarian for Saving the Survivors) and Ben Muller (Wildlife Veterinarian for Wildlifevets.net). Our pilot (Peter Perlstein from Wildlife Helicopters Mozambique) comes with 38 years of wildlife flying experience

Credit: Julie Kern

On the ground we have Dr Julieta Lichuge as Wildlife Veterinarian and Elias Matsinhe as Head of Communication and Marketing for ANAC (Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação). Tersio Joaquim David represents the FFS-IGF PhD Candidate who will be working with the tracking data amongst many other responsibilities. Then there is a group of nine ladies made up of the Elephants Alive team accompanied by five Blue Sky Society expedition members under the leadership of Carla Geyser. We here to help spot elephants, carry equipment, fit collars and collect data via the five collars kindly donated by FFS-IGF (Foundation François Sommer and the International Foundation for Wildlife Management) and Blue Sky Society.

Photo Credit: Anka Bedetti

“What to do?’’ was a phrase we jovially repeated after Alessandro as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack could not be closer to the truth than finding an elephant to dart in a closed canopy of miombo woodland. Fortuitously, Dr Carlos Lopes Pereira from ANAC had collared four elephants in 2016 so we had a starting point with one operational collar left sending out a VHF signal in the sea of bush which stretched for 2,860 km² before us.

Photo credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

Away from the base camps on either side of the Reserve there is only one main road intersecting the breathtaking, unfragmented landscape spread below the beating blades of the helicopter. Anka Bedetti (The Elephants Alive Tracking Project Manager) kept the flying and darting teams on track so that the first tuskless cow was found relatively easily before reaching the one remaining collared cow who was due for a replacement collar.

Credit: Ben Muller

Thereafter it takes 20 hours of flying outside of Gilé into the neighbouring Community Coutada and even beyond to collar another two cows and a bull, all of which are tucked away in ever denser forest.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

Our time and the budgeted hours come to an end too soon. One collar is left to deploy during a future mission together with two buffalo collars which Thomas hopes to deploy on some reintroduced buffalo herds.

Plumes of fires dotted on the horizon remind us all that there is still much to do in Gilé. The Reserve needs more rangers, more elephants and general game. It needs to be on the map as a tourist destination.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

The quiet forests and the vast wilderness seem to echo with potential and if these trees could speak they would surely proudly talk of Gilé’s former glory when the Reserve was teaming with black rhino, elephants, and numerous other species including large predators which all hid in the shadows of these same trees.

Credit: Anka Bedetti

ANAC and FFS-IGF have joined hands to start the journey to ensure that the animals are brought back and protected. The collared sentinels will lead the way and map the footpaths where we all hope other soft-soles and sharp hooves will also leave their mark. Gilé National Reserve’s surrounding Coutada of Mulela will be community-owned, representing a new model where the people will have ownership of the hope and potential that the Reserve offers as a neighbour.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

As we leave the emerald which is Gilé National Reserve, we cross into the buffer zone and then fly over the many shambas (farmlands) with their colourful inhabitants dressed in bright shweshwe prints while standing in clean-swept yards surrounded by rows of cassava crops. I keep thinking of those Brachystegia woodlands and the few remaining secretive elephants.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

We follow the lazy bends of the Lice River heading southward and back towards Quelimane. As I look back towards Gilé the trees, people and wildlife seem to blur together on the horizon. I close my eyes in an attempt to burn the Reserve’s beauty into my mind and whisper: “Let them be left, wildness and wet until we meet again’’.

Credit: Julie Kern