Category Archives: Blog

Elephants and Vultures – It’s Complicated

Written by Robin Cook

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

The white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is a critically endangered species in the Greater Kruger National Park (Greater KNP), with adults being threatened by a variety of factors such as poisonings, electrocutions, muti-trade and habitat loss. These factors place great strain on an already decreasing population. However, as white-backed vultures nest at the top of big trees, it is also a possibility that impact by African elephant (Loxodonta africana) on big tree species may affect vulture nesting success. Therefore, Elephants Alive have been monitoring elephant impact on vulture nesting trees since 2008. Our surveys take place across the Associated Private Nature Reserves of the Greater KNP, with this year being the first year that Thornybush Private Nature Reserve has been included in the survey. This long-term survey allows us to gain an understanding of the size class and species of trees for which vultures select, the elephant impact levels on these trees, as well as the survival rates of the trees and vulture nests. And what do we find? A complex relationship. White-backed vultures nest in a variety of tree species, some which are more vulnerable to elephant impact than others. Vulture nests are also vulnerable to heavy winds, which have frequented the Greater KNP in recent months. Therefore, by assessing a variety of habitat-types and tree species across the Greater KNP, we are gaining a clearer understanding of where elephant impact may be a concern and where it may not be. This information is then fed back to reserve management to aid in the conservation of vultures and their nesting trees.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

We are very grateful to all reserve management for granting us permission to continue with this survey, as well as to Spencer and Cheryl Morrison, Aida Ettayeb, Jessica Wilmot and Hiral Naik who helped in the field during the 2019 survey. Cheryl Morrison is also thanked for measuring tree size dimensions on completion of the field work. A special word of thank to Sieglinde Rode who started this study with Dr. Michelle Henley as part of her MSc in 2008 and who has sadly passed away. We would also like to thank Johna Turner for many years of offering protection to field assistants in the past.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb
Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb


WHO IS WHO? by Dr. Julie Kern

How many large-tusked bulls remain in the APNR? How socially connected are different population members? How successful are human-elephant conflict mitigation methods? These questions are all examples of key research objectives for Elephants Alive. If at first glance you think these questions have little in common, look again and you’ll see they all rely on a key piece of information – who’s who.

Identifying elephant bulls falls under the umbrella of the ID Study and is Elephants Alive’s longest-running project, having begun in 1996. Since then, the team have identified almost 1,500 individual bulls. Identifying elephants requires excellent observation skills and the team pay special attention to any noticeable physical features which differ between individuals, from tusk configuration and body appearance, to characteristic ear patterns, such as notches, tears and holes. Using photographs collected at each sighting, identikits are drawn for each individual elephant, and subsequently used to identify the individuals seen in the field. If you’re keen to hone your detective skills, read on for our selection of top elephant-identification tips and tricks to use at your next sighting.

State the obvious

Many individuals have startling body features which can make their identification quick and simple. Look out for collapsed or folded ears, missing tails or trunk tips, and the location of scars or lumps.

Also take note of the tusks – any birdwatchers will be familiar with the acronym ‘GISS’ or general impression of size and shape’, a rule which also holds true in this case. Are they short or long, thin or thick, straight, splayed or skew? Are both tusks present, and if not, is one simply broken at the base or missing altogether? When missing entirely, the tusk socket is conspicuously empty (below far right).

Play it by ear

Once you’ve checked the more obvious features, it’s time to take a closer look at an elephant’s ears. If there are any tears, notches or holes, pay attention to their location, size and shape. Unfortunately, many individuals have few notches and holes in their ears, especially younger elephants, which makes them much harder to identify. In this case, you can often find a clue to their identity by noting venation patterns on the ears.

The signs they are a changin’

Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s worth remembering that much like ourselves, an elephant’s physical features are likely to change over time as tusks break, another tear appears, or holes pull through leaving a notch in their place. Take Kierie-Klapper (below), a young bull first seen in 2005 and resighted in most years since. In 2013 a new hole appeared in his lower left ear, and earlier this year, another notch was added to the top of his right ear.

Elephants Alive has recently published an Elephant ID Guide in conjunction with Amarula, featuring 30 of the most iconic individuals in the APNR. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy or alternatively, if you have photographs from your own sightings that you’d like to add to our Citizen Sightings database, please forward them to

Bee Product Gift Packs

We are a hive of activity whilst preparing our special Bee Gift Packs to help raise funds. This will include elephant-friendly honey, honey-infused home-made soap, home-made lip balm made with our bees wax, an Elephants Alive bracelet and our new bee bracelet (coming soon!), and beeswax food wraps to reduce throwaway plastic. Included will be a Safe Guide to Viewing Elephants (produced by the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group) and an information pamphlet. Each package is hand- wrapped with love. We promote non-plastic usage and all products are sustainably harvested in the best interest of the bees, and are 100% organic and raw. We already have an order for all our current stock – new stock will be in place before Christmas, when the rains have hopefully arrived and the bees are making more honey.

Relate Bracelet

Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (ESAG) Workshop

This workshop formed part of the DEA National Research Strategy for Elephants, feeding into research projects under this strategy led by UKZN. The results of this research will provide greater understanding of issues of management concern, including around direct management of elephants and its unintended consequences, Human-elephant conflict and mitigation, and the broader socio-economic importance of elephants both on and off reserves. The results of the research will also feed immediately into the separate process run by SANBI to develop a National Elephant Conservation Strategy, to help enrich the thinking in developing that strategy.

ESAG workshop – Aging elephants