Category Archives: Blog

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.


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.