Dung and Rumbles – a day in the life of an Elephants Alive researcher

By Harriet Nimmo

Trying to stuff a large, steaming lump of elephant dung into a small glass test tube was not quite what I’d expected, when I spent a day in the field with the Elephants Alive research team.

The dung samples are preserved in saline, and the tubes taken back to the UK for analysis by one of Elephants Alive’s collaborators, Dr. Hannah Mumby from Cambridge University. One can just imagine the Customs Officer asking “anything to declare?” on arrival at Heathrow!

For 20 years, the inspirational Elephants Alive organisation has been monitoring the social structure and movements of one of southern Africa’s largest continuous elephant populations. They have collared more than 60 elephants in over 100 collaring operations throughout the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, and have developed an individual elephant identification database of nearly 2000 elephants in the Greater Kruger Area. Their long term research is providing fundamental information for elephant management and protection; it is informing SANParks, conservation bodies and landowners on seasonal movements, sustainability of trophy hunting, impact on vegetation– and sadly now is also identifying poaching hotspots.

We know much less about male elephants than females, yet males could be more at risk from being involved in human-elephant conflicts such as crop raiding, and of course big bulls are top of the trophy hunters’ hit list. So Elephants Alive have always focussed their research around the mapping of male elephant movements and their social interactions via the long-term ID database.

Recently, the Bull Elephant Network Project under the guidance of Hannah, is taking recordings of the bull’s  vocal communications and trying to understand the genetic relatedness between bulls.

Our day in the field starts at dawn, with researchers Ronnie Makukule and Jessica Wilmot who home in on an individual collared elephants using a special Google tracking link developed by Save the Elephants.

Today we are locating Classic – a majestic 40 year old bull in his prime, and instantly identifiable with his broken right tusk.

With the latest technology, it is incredible that we can be deep in the African bush, and yet pick up a signal on an iPad, showing approximately where Classic is.  Once homed in on the area, Ronnie uses a radio telemetry aerial to precisely locate the bull.

And coming round a corner, there he is, hanging out with four of his mates – boys at the waterhole.  There is much jostling, jousting, splashing, mud bathing, tree rubbing and trunk tussling – before each bull wanders off in his own direction.  With these incredible sentient creatures, it would be wonderful to know what is really going on, what is being said, and who is related to who ….

Jess and Ronnie sit silently, holding a microphone aloft, recording the rumbles and noting the associated behaviours, so we can try and understand their “language”.  Sometimes an elephant will come and investigate the researchers – obviously trying to understand what we’re up to, whilst we’re studying them!

Please note that inexperienced observers should not encourage or seek out such behaviour in wild elephants.

Photos are taken of all the associating animals to add to the long-term database that Elephants Alive has maintained. Dung samples are collected and carefully labelled for each individual elephant.  to work out the genetic relatedness of these bulls. The dung will also be tested in the USA by another collaborator of Elephants Alive, Dr. Kari Morfeld from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute  for stress hormones to add yet another level of fascinating information to our understanding of the bull society.

Thanks to Elephants Alive and their research projects, we are beginning to get an insight into the sophisticated communications and social structures of these complex and magnificent pachyderms. Most importantly, we can apply this understanding of their lives and behaviour to help African elephant conservation.

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