All posts by Sarah Smuts

Elephants and Vultures

Dr Michelle Henley and the GVI volunteers surveying a tree with a nest site.

By Michelle Henley

Every year Elephants Alive monitors large trees used by vultures and raptors as nesting sites for elephant impact. We are trying to determine if elephant impact on the trees compromise the nest survival rates in any way.

We started out monitoring all the nests in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve but were then invited to survey the rest of the Associated Private Nature Reserves which means that we now monitor over 200 trees annually. The trees themselves are evaluated according to the severity of elephant impact for various impact types such as Branches Broke to Access smaller plant parts (BBA), Bark Striping (BS), Uprooting (UR) and Main Stem snapping (MS). The nests are recorded as active or inactive while we also record if only remnants of a nest remain over time.

GPS tagged tree with vulture nest.

After weeks of trekking through kilometers of veld, the team managed to collate another year of unique ecological data depicting the current conservation status of vultures.

We have published our former results (see link) but hope to bring out more results covering a longer time span.  Preliminary results seem to indicate that there are different areas of the Reserves where clumps of vultures are doing better than others. Also, at some sites Knob Thorn trees are preferred while along rivers a greater diversity of tree species are selected for nest building.

White backed vulture nest.

We would like to thank Johna Turner for helping with these surveys year after year and for having a real interest in the work other than being one of the most experienced guides I know. Robbie, Ronnie, Leah, Zoe and Malene, you literally drove and walked the extra mile to help find trees and nests. Thank you to the Wardens of the APNR for marking the nesting spots from the air so that we could monitor them and others found from the ground.


Long term tracking of long lived emissaries continues…

Thank you to Dr. Ben Muller and Dr. Joel Alves for darting and taking good care of our study animals. Joel is currently working part time with Ben from Wildlifevets but will be joining this great organisation permanently next year. Thanks to Gerry McDonald and Jana Meyer for the flying. Joel produced the video as a man of many talents.

By Michelle Henley

It had been a long time since I first experienced the life changing privilege of collaring some of our very first large elephant bulls.  Each of the four giants I first met more than 10 years ago after meticulously drawing their ear patterns, in the hope of a re-sighting down the line.


The ID study both then and now involves taking detailed photos for identification of all associating elephants, recording age estimates, social context, GPS location and the reaction of the elephant to the observer. Once the ID drawing has been made the animal is named, so Proud was christened on 22 December 2002, Intwandamela on 23 March 2004, General on 6 May 2005 and WESSA on 20 October 2006.

Intwanda 14 Years ago, just before charging

Meeting Intwandamela for the first time was the most indelible experience of the four introductions and certainly earned him his name. We primarily IDed elephants from the research vehicle but on this day I was on foot with Eckson, one of the most experienced trackers imaginable. We were specifically stalking the bull for ID pictures after reports of a very impressive animal had come through via the radio network. I was mesmerised by his beauty as we watched him ambling along. His sweeping tusks were hypnotically swaying from side to side. We thought he was unaware of us but as he rounded a termite mound the wind suddenly shifted. He immediately charged. I stood glued to the ground, knowing not to run at such close quarters while Eckson bravely walked forward, raise his arms and shouted ‘Hey! Hey!’. I will never forget how diminutive Eckson’s outline looked against the back drop of the huge bull’s raised head and piercing amber eyes. Time froze. We held our breath as we stared at each other – us hoping the bull will realise we mean him no harm, the bull wondering if he needs to charge again as the dust of his mock charge slowly settled on our unfamiliar outlines which still remained. He kept his fiery gaze on us but gradually lowered his head, then shook it and slowly turned on his heel. We breathed again. Eckson flashed his white teeth at me in an adrenaline filled smile, then motioned to start the long walk back to camp. We walked in silence and in awe of the experience. Having captured his ID I thought that naming him Intwandamela (he who greets you with fire in his eyes) would be very fitting.

Intwanda – now, 14 years after first being collared.
Ben the vet and Dave Powrie with Intwanda

Through the years we have come to know Intwandamela as one of the most placid study animals. He still has a subdued spark in his eye and I like to think that despite the 14 years of following him, it wouldn’t take much to light that fire in his eyes again. Only, I hoped that it wouldn’t happen today as Dr. Ben Muller from Wildlifevets and Dave Powrie, Warden of Sabi Sands, were weaving their way on foot towards him, Ben with his dart gun and Dave as back up. Intwandamela flinched when the dart hit him but only moved a short distance into a dry riverbed. I was thrilled when Ben motioned for me to follow as both him and Dave wanted to keep an eye on the darted bull to make sure he goes down as expected. Intwandamela chose a lovely spot with soft green grass to slowly lie down on while obliviously snoring as the Elephants Alive crew gathered to hastily fit his new collar, take bio-samples and morphometric measurements.

Michelle feeling Intandwa’s molars

There are no words for the emotions you feel when meeting an old friend like Intwandamela at close quarters again. When you can admire how he has come of age and fully grasped the landscape of skin draped over his whale like body. He was on his last set of molars and they were well in wear. I ran my hands across his silky tusks, momentarily praying that he will never become a victim of human greed. The work was done and again I was privileged to stay at close quarters when Ben delivered the antidote. Ben, Dave and I watched him recover and slowly amble off like he had done so many years before…..his eyes containing a fire now left smouldering through many years of habituation, my eyes hot with tears of gratitude.


Thank you to Mark Bourn and Dave Powrie for all the logistical back up. Thank you to Johan Eksteen and Riaan de Lange for the help with the permits. Dr. Ben Muller from Wildlifevets, thank you for making this particular collaring experience so memorable. Dr. Joel Alves is thanked for also offering extra veterinary assistance. Jana Meyer, thank you for being backup pilot. The Elephants Alive team, proud to work with you all and very appreciative of all the help.


Big Tree Monitoring by the Tree Musketeers!

Lloyd, Raphaella and Isobel

Elephants Alive have been monitoring 3000 large trees since 2004, to understand elephant impact. This year we were very fortunate to have three wonderful volunteers undertaking the survey work – our Tree Musketeers.

The Tree Musketeers

Isabel Wolf-Gillespie, her husband Lloyd, and her sister Raphaela spent 6 weeks assessing 3000 tagged trees for elephant, or any other, damage in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) adjacent to the Kruger National Park.

Isabel had met the Elephants Alive team the previous year when passing through the area with the Elephant Ignite Expedition crew. ‘After some intense training to ensure the continuity of the data collection methods, the small party of three tackled their immense task with the most devotion I have yet seen in any vegetation monitoring team. I know just how hard some days can be when the heat gets intense and you have been at it from dawn to dusk‘ said Michelle Henley who helped conduct all previous surveys.


Surveying big trees


Isabel says “ My husband and I were in between jobs and coincidentally Michelle was looking for someone to do the field research on the tagged trees. It was an opportunity not to be missed and I roped in my sister Raphaela who is currently studying her Masters in Social Ecology. 

The three of us had the most incredible time out there, walking daily among wild animals in the heart of the bushveld, in search of 3000 trees that had to be re-assessed for damage, re-tagged and re-measured. We loved it! We called ourselves the “Tree Musketeers”. Each of us were equipped with our own weapons; the tree height measuring tool with reflecting tape, the GPS and map, hammer and tags and the clipboard with pencil! To keep our motivation high we referred to each other using our developed Tree Musketeer names based on our dedicated tasks. I was Navigator (GPS and map), Lloyd was Reflector (measuring rod, hammer and nails) and Raphaela was Writedown (pencil and data sheets). We had the best time and in addition to this, we know that we have contributed in a small way towards the conservation and management of elephants and trees in the APNR”

Elephants Alive is extremely grateful for your non-stop-seven-days-a-week efforts. We saw the three of you lose weight as the days ticked by and instead of ever complaining, you only kept marveling about how wonderful it was to ‘be out there working for conservation’. Proudly Lloyd has been appointed Operations Manager and Isabel the Wildlife Education and Community Outreach Manager at Mashatu, while Raphaela is motivated to pursue a PhD and wants her love for trees to feature somewhere in the mix of opportunities that lie ahead for her.

We look forward to reporting on the results of the survey as we had previously monitored all these trees five years ago.

Bees, Trees and Elephants – NEW INSTALLMENT!

The new BeePak hive hanging in a Marula tree

By Harriet Nimmo

Following on from the success of Elephants Alive’s pioneering bee hive project (see link), the next exciting phase is underway!

Lifting down one of the old wooden hives

Thanks to funding from the EMS Foundation, 25 new, superior Beepak hives have now been hung in iconic marula trees in Jejane Reserve.  These replace Elephants Alive’s initial simple, wooden research hives. These innovative new hives better protect the bee colonies from drought conditions, extreme temperatures and have plenty of space for honey production.  Beepak hives were invented by Cape Town based Mark Collins. These new composite hides are revolutionising bee-keeping – indeed Mark Collins won “SAB’s Social Innovation Award” in 2014. The hives are very durable, have improved insulation properties and the bees can be fed as part of a system within the hive itself.

EA’s Bee – Team Prince Nkuna, Mark Collins ,Tamsin Lotter, Ronny Makukule.

Mark Collins spent 3 days with the Elephants Alive team, training Bee Project Manager Ronnie Makukule, and his assistant Prince Nkuna to install and manage the new hives on Jejane.  Wearing thick protective bee-keeping outfits, during one of the lowveld’s hottest weeks, the team carefully transferred each bee colony from its old wooden hive into the new Beepak hives.  As Ronnie and Mark gently moved the wax frames, swarming with bees – Prince helped keep the bees subdued with his smoker, filled with smouldering elephant dung. The Beepak hives were then suspended from the marula trees. It was hot, hard and careful work, but all swarms were successfully moved into their new homes – with only a few stings!

Smoking the bees to keep them calm
Bees being transferred

It is hoped that honey production will commence once summer is here and the bees can find more food from flowering trees and shrubs. Elephants Alive plan to develop an “elephant friendly” honey and wax business, run by local community members, including the all-female Black Mamba team.

At the invitation of Ron Sams, a lodge owner on the Balule Reserve, Mark Collins was also invited to speak to a group of ten lodge owners during his stay.  They are keen to protect the iconic trees around their camps from damage by elephants – especially during these drought conditions. Building on Elephants Alive’s success on Jejane reserve, bee hives are now being ordered by Balule, and staff members will be trained in beekeeping skills.

It is inspiring to see Elephants Alive’s pioneering research now acting as a template and model of success for other reserves. This research is providing a valuable case study for job creation, biodiversity friendly livelihoods and the reduction of human: elephant conflict – a win: win solution for elephants, large trees, game reserves and the local communities.

“Elephant Friendly” honey coming soon…..!

Thank you to the EMS Foundation for funding this next instalment, to Mark Collins for all his help, support and expertise and to Jejane Reserve for hosting our hives.