A quarter of a century and for the love of elephants


Michelle with Ellies

By Dr. Michelle Henley

Twenty five years ago I got drawn into the world of the close-knit social structure of elephants when my Mother (an artist) and I started drawing elephant ear patterns in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) to the west of Kruger.  I had just completed my MSc on elephants and have never looked back since. Enthused by the individual- elephant-identification gurus like Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Cynthia Moss and Dr. Joyce Poole for the savannas species and Dr. Andrea Turkalo for the forest elephants, we thought this represented an exciting hobby. We had no idea then that this ‘hobby’ would be so addictive and become almost all consuming.



Today our individual elephant identification study is one of Elephants Alive’s main activities. We have collected over 2000 individual IDs after encouragement by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Marlene McCay (the Chair of Elephants Alive) to continue the journey and since officially registering the project with SANParks in 2003. Today the whole Elephants Alive team is fully immersed in the elephant soap opera that unfolds when you can identify individual elephants. ‘’Who is with who and how long will they stay together?’’ and ‘’So-and-so should be coming into musth again this year’’ is all part of our daily conversations.



We have received wonderful support though all the years from various wardens, employees, interns, landowners or tourists visiting or working in the area. Each, either providing good photographs of elephants or their time to help process and identify individuals. Every photo provided or elephant identified represents a brick planted in a huge wall of knowledge that allows us a glimpse into the fascinating world of elephant associations. There is no better way to get people involved in citizen science! We look forward to sharing our SEEK (System of Elephant Ear pattern Knowledge) guidelines with you which we developed for rapid identification. SEEK will soon be published in Pachyderm and represents a quarter of a century long journey of dedication and love for elephants.

In tribute to Cathy Greyling who put me on this ID journey with her passion for elephants. All others who walked or continue to walk this journey with us, are either acknowledged as co-authors or listed in the acknowledgement section of the upcoming publication.