Category Archives: Blog

Elephant Eye Test!

By Harriet Nimmo.

Matambu. the gentle giant, is a handsome bull elephant in his prime – but thought to have problems with his sight. Renowned for his calm disposition he is around 40 years old and was first collared by Elephants Alive in 2005. Over the years he has become well known to the Research Team, and is usually found in the Umbabat Private Reserve. When his collar was last replaced four years ago, it was noticed that he was having problems seeing, as he was seen sometimes walking into trees.  In the years that have followed, he has been watched closely and he seems to have adjusted to his failing sight, using his trunk to tap the ground ahead of him like a walking stick.

The batteries on his collar now once again needed replacing, so it was decided to call in veterinary ophthalmologist specialist Dr Izak Venter from Johannesburg to assess him.  Dr Izak briefed the team, to explain how he was going to examine Matambu’s eyes to investigate what the cause of his blindness was and whether it could be treated.

Carefully turning Matambu

Matambu was tracked on foot, rather than located by helicopter, to avoid making him run too fast while being blind and potentially bumping into objects. He was quietly darted by veterinarian Dr. Ben Muller, and once tranquilised and lying on his side, the Elephants Alive team quickly and efficiently replaced his collar.  Meanwhile veterinarian eye expert Dr Izak examined Matambu’s left eye, shrouding himself under a blanket with his instruments, to avoid the glare of the sun on the elephant’s delicate eye.  A crane was then used to hoist the sleeping Matambu onto his other side, so the right eye could be examined.

As the Elephants Alive team waited with bated breath, Dr Izak made his assessment.  He announced to the assembled team that Matambu’s right eye was completely blind – caused by retinal trauma in the past, and for which there is no cure. The left eye had a cataract, and Matambu still has partial sight. Neither eye was likely to be causing him any pain or distress, however the cataract would likely cause complete blindness over a period of time. Although cataract operations have successfully been performed on other pachyderms such as rhinoceros the aftercare presents a problem. Matambu cannot be treated with eye drops for weeks afterwards and the operation carries a risk of infection. Undaunted by the results Dr. Izak said he would consult the literature and also find out whether any Zoos throughout the world have conducted successful cataract operations on elephants in the past.

Matambu moving off after coming round.

Armed with knowledge, we will be given further advice by the expert but for now no immediate further action could be taken.  Ben the vet gave Matambu the anti-dote to the tranquilizer, and we all watched as he rose to his feet and moved off into the bush. Matambu is in good health, and is obviously finding enough to eat, despite his disability.  Even more remarkable, his tracking data has demonstrated that during musth he still treks long distances to locate breeding herds, before returning to his home range on the Umbabat – showing the power of his spatial memory despite his poor vision. This partially blind bull just continues to amaze us with his adaptability and noble presence.  His disability has graced him with one of the most placid natures you can ever imagine in a bull of his size. As he likes to walk in unobstructed roads, he has developed an exceptional tolerance for the vehicles and people he often intercepts. Long may you wander still albeit in darkness.

Elephants Alive would like to thank Francis Garrard and Carla Geyser for funding the costs of this operation and the fitting of his new collar, vet Dr Ben Muller and ophthalmologist Dr Izak Venter, Johan Myburgh for his truck and crane. The Umbabat chairman Theo van Wyk, is thanked for granting permission to conduct the examination. We are grateful for the continued support and care the Umbabat landowners have bestowed upon Matambu. Riaan de Lange from MPTA is thanked for issues the capture permits.

Matambu’s movements 2010 – 2012
Matambu’s movements 2013 – 2014
Matambu’s movements 2015 – 2017

Analysis of Matambu’s movements before his eyesight deterioration and after show that he still uses a similar main home range but that he travels less far than he used too. The location spots being much closer together in the later years indicate that he is slower too. The fact he is still moving around and travelling  outside his home range despite his blindness, shows he is relying on spatial memory. This demonstrates once again how amazing elephant’s spatial memory is, and how much there is still to learn!

Even though Matambu appears to be coping to move around, he seems to have lost his social touch over the years which underlies the importance of social network analysis. This could give us the unique opportunity to determine just how important eye sight is when it comes to elephant interactions and relationships.


Homage to Wayne Lotter – bringing your namesakes to safety, with farmers’ help.

By Harriet Nimmo

Three young bull elephants broke out of a local reserve a few months ago.  Up until now, they had not caused too much damage, staying hidden in the bush.  However this all changed when the elephants discovered mango orchards.  Elephants Alive got a call from Farm Watch to say the young pachyderms were now raiding farmlands at night – breaking mango trees, damaging gates and knocking down fences.

So the rescue mission commenced!

It proved hard to find the elephants, as they stayed hidden in thick bush at the foot of the mountains during the day – only commencing their farm invasions under the cover of darkness. So first of all, the Elephants Alive team, with top tracker Andreas Liebenburg from Bateleur Eco Safaris, managed to track the elephants on foot and get close enough to dart one with veterinarian Dr. Ben Muller, so that a tracking radio collar could be fitted. This elephant was named Wayne, in honour of Elephants Alive’s partner and supporter, Wayne Lotter who was murdered in Tanzania earlier this month.  So now Elephants Alive would be able to understand their movements and strategise their capture more efficiently.

To help buy a few more days’ time to organise the rescue mission – Elephants Alive also started burning dung balls at night, at the entrance to the orchards.  These were impregnated with capsicum, a strong chilli essence which creates a pungent smokescreen, that the elephants avoid. All credit to the farmers, who fully supported the rescue mission, and wanted to help save the elephants, rather than have them shot.

On Friday 1st September, two helicopters, two flatbed trucks complete with crane and a trailer, and a team of vets from arrived from Nelspruit.  With Wayne’s GPS collar now showing us where the elephants were hiding, and thanks to some admirable skilful flying, the helicopters managed to drive the elephants out of a steep kloof and into a small open area.  Here Dr. Ben Muller could quickly dart all three elephants from the air.  As the anaesthetic kicked in – a bulldozer began clearing the way through the bush, so the flatbed trucks could reach the slumbering bulls. The elephants were then carefully hoisted and secured onto the trucks. And so the remarkable convoy could begin – with the three elephants driven out of the farmland, along the highway for almost 40km to the safety of the Protected Areas to rehome the runaways.

Once in the reserve, Elephants Alive fitted a small VHS collar to another of the bulls – so that now in their new home, their movements can be monitored to see if the three runaways stay together.

It was a long and tough day, made all the more poignant by having Wayne Lotter’s family, wife Inge, and twin daughters Tamsin and Cara-Jane accompany us. As one of the bulls had already been named Wayne, and in memory of the conservation hero, the other two escapees were named Derek and Lotter – Wayne’s middle and surname.  Elephants Alive look forwards to following the movements of Wayne, Derek and Lotter over the following months….

The relocation was logistically problematic, yet spectacularly successful due to the hard-working team of professionals who were involved in the rescue mission.

A very big thank you to:
The farmers Christo van Vuuren , Johan Janse van Vuuren and his farm manager Adriaan van Wyk, for their tolerance and care for the elephants; Lafras Tremper and Jane Pradines of Farm Watch for all their logistical support; helicopter pilots Jacques Saayman and Gerry Mcdonald;  vets Ben Muller, Silke Pfitzer and their teams; Johan Myburgh and Andre Pienaar for the trucks;  Byron Wright for supplying hay when needed to keep the elephants in the designated and planned capture area; LEDET Government Environmental Officer Lyle Wiggins for permit arrangements and traffic control;  Andreas Liebenburg for his tracking skills; Peter Smelting for his capsicum; the GVI managers Robert Mann and Leah Brown for commandeering the troops whenever needed. Last but not least, this would not have been possible without the sponsorship we have received thus far. Thank you to HSI and YPO, and our caring partners Transfrontier Africa who shared the fundraising plight with Pennies for Eles and Rettet das Nashorn. Craig Spencer, Lisa Truman, Amy Clark, Vivian Burns, Dex Kotze and Rob Garmany we salute you. We still have a way to go to fit all the bills so please donate if you can. Finally, an elephant sized thank you to Dr. Michelle Henley and Jessica Wilmot, of Elephants Alive, for their passion, dedication and hard work, organising and executing this rescue mission.

New Research Lab Opens at Elephants Alive’s Headquarters

Dr Kari Morfeld outside the new lab at Elephant’s Alive’s HQ with landlord Gionni Gelletich

American research scientist, Dr Kari Morfeld, has opened a new laboratory at Elephants Alive’s headquarters.  Here her team of researchers will be analysing elephant dung, collected by the Elephants Alive Field Team.  The elephant dung is being tested for hormones – to understand stress levels, health, and reproductive patterns.

Dr Kari’s research helps understand how a variety of factors (such as poaching events, seasonal changes due to drought, tourism, and human-elephant conflict areas) affect elephant health, stress, and reproduction.  We know that stress can cause health issues, and affect reproduction.  Thus, we can monitor elephants’ response to various conservation efforts in terms of how stressful the events are, and whether the stress is short-term or long-term.  Long-term, chronic stress can lead to other health issues, and affect reproductive success.

Dr Kari is also working with Elephants Alive to better understand other aspects of elephant biology.  This includes assessing testosterone levels in bull elephants and cross mapping this with other research currently taking place on male communications.

Dr Kari is currently based at the Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Missouri, and met Dr. Michelle Henley, co-founder of Elephants Alive, when Kari was previously based at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Collaring Elephants in Mozambique

Banhine National Park

We started our search for elephants at Banhine National Park, a beautiful reserve tucked away like a precious jewel amid the wilderness areas which are still part of the Mozambique landscape. Our eyes met with breathtaking views of vast pans dotted with water lilies surrounded by autumn glad Mopani woodlands, Greenthorns, Star-chestnuts and coppery Baobabs piercing the younger canopies like ancient sentinels. The stage was perfectly set to find elephants but we could only find two pairs of fresh tracks of wily bulls who had learnt to circumnavigate human settlements. Their dung was full of germinating watermelon seeds: a dead giveaway of their nocturnal raids into neighbouring settlements.  We literally did search high and low for the owners of the spoor but they eluded us in the dense Ironwood forests.

Project vehicle during refueling of chopper during elephant collaring

Next we moved on to Parque Nacional do Limpopo. Here finding elephants also proved incredibly challenging. As with our trip in 2016 to deploy the first five elephant collars, we found signs of poachers before finding any elephants. We flew over snare-lines and packs of hunting dogs while strips of fresh meat decorated the trees like a macabre Christmas tree celebrating the slain carcasses of the animals that dotted the landscape.

Finally finding an elephant to collar in Parque Nacional do Limpopo

Finally we caught sight of our first group of elephants in the late afternoon the day before we were scheduled to abandon our eight day trip.  At first light of our last day the experienced vet and pilot team set off to deploy the remaining five collars on the group of elephants. We managed to collar four bulls and a young female. These elephants move together in a tight group, huddled together by their fear of the darker side of man. We wish them safety and hope their tracking data set will shed light on how they have managed to survive by hiding like refugees in the former lands of Mozambique which once restocked the Kruger National Park with elephants before the price of ivory skyrocketed.

Map of the movements of the ellies collared in Parque National du Limpopo

We would like to thank the following organisations and people for all their efforts to assist us with the collaring operations:

National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC): Dr. Bartolomeu Soto (Director) and Dr. Carlos Lopez Pereira (Head of Law Enforcement and Anti-poaching) for organising flight clearance. Banhine NP: Abel Nhabanga (Warden), Helder Aanmandlate (Head of Security), Ernesto Filipe da Silva (GIS technician). The Peace Parks Foundation (PPF): Antony Alexander (Country Manager), Peter Leitner (Project Manager PNL), Billy Swanepoel (Technical Advisor Protection and Wildlife PNL) and Hannes van Wyk (Conservation Aerial Support Pilot) all helped with the logistics of the operation. We are very grateful to the PPF for donating the fuel. Save the Elephants Crisis Fund: Thank you to Chris Thouless for funding the operating expenses of the collaring operation. Conservation Action Trust: Francis Garrard kindly donated the collars and sponsored the camping crew. Dr. Cobus Raath and Jacques Saayman as experienced veterinarian and wildlife pilot, you never fail to complete a mission. We can’t thank you enough for your perseverance under pressure. Kristoffer Everatt and Rae Kokes, thank you for assisting with the pre-operation sightings of elephants. Adam Cruise provided transport for part of the expedition.