All posts by Sarah Smuts

Increasing the dose – at the foot of giants

by Dr. Michelle Henley

A physician once said:  “The best medicine for humans is love.’’ Someone asked, “What if it doesn’t work?’’  He smiled and said: ‘’Increase the dose.”

We walked silently in single file, not like stalking predators but with purpose. Why? We came to meet a Gardening Giant, a Gentle Giant, a Gracious Giant. Who is this Giant? Fifteen years ago I had traced the ear outline and registered him as Kilimanjaro (the Kruger recently named him Mondzweni). Yes, like Kilimanjaro the mountain who doesn’t seek forgiveness for the space it takes, so it is with this large tusked bull. He was young then but already carrying a mountain (Kilima) of whiteness (Njaro) and I knew that one day his ivory would bestow upon him a sense of greatness. Time ticked by slowly while his tusks grew and I waited to meet him again.

We moved in an arch ahead of the elephant until we reached a wide open patch where we went to sit side by side surrounded by a grove of marula trees in which Kilimanjaro was feeding at a distance. He was slowly moving out of the fringes of tree shadows towards us whilst sniffing out devil’s thorns creeping along the dark soil. A gentle breeze took our scent towards him. Momentarily his trunk snorkelled to catch our odour. He now knew we were there. We were different. No gun, no fidgeting legs to take flight, no tangible fear. Did he sense this? We were seated, rooted, grounded and trusting of this bull we had come to know.

He fed closer and closer in a deliberate straight line towards us. At about 10 metres from us he lifted his gigantic head to cast his amber eyes more clearly upon us. The blazing blue sky behind him was larger than the frame of this elephant but somehow what he presented made the sky fade insignificantly behind him. He stopped feeding as he needed to satisfy his curiosity.  He edged closer towards where I was sitting. He stretched his muscled trunk before him as if reaching for my shoe and then stroked his trunk across his head as if to remind himself that it was him being this brave. After all, the three humans at his feet had taught his kind that we are the super predators. Time stood still. We shared a feeling of ‘’I am because of what we all are.” Ubuntu is the word, the African philosophy, the personification of this connection and the power of this shared vulnerability. Kilimanjaro moved sideways along the three of us to respectfully circle around us, silently returning to feed along his initial trajectory before making a detour to inspect us. He chose to come towards us, he chose not to stick to the shadows and avoid us. He chose not to dominate us even though he had every right not to fear us because of his size. If he did not make a detour to see us, we would have meant nothing to him. He was none of these and neither were we. We set up a meeting and both parties showed up to acknowledge each other’s presence. There was freedom of choice and the utmost reverence for the enormity of the moment to narrow the gap, to bridge it and to increase the dose…

We sat still after he had left although our minds were reeling. I replayed his tangible presence in my mind’s eye. He had literally blocked out the sky as if he were my world, my peace with life. In an instant, he gave more meaning to 25 years of studying elephants than any scientific publication or discovery ever could. Kilimanjaro had created a realm, which moved beyond science and bordered on the spiritual. He held my sense of purpose beneath his feathery eyelashes upon that amber-filled gaze. His tusks were not weapons but timelines of tragedy. They represented a poverty of spirit that we as people have manifested in our actions.  A poor reflection of how we value the world and material things like ivory. A measure of how we place value on objects rather than wisdom, on greed rather than respect and on power rather than compassion. I once asked a seasoned tracker what was respect. His answer was embedded in a story. He was hot on the heels of a rhinoceros he was tracking along a clear footpath. It was summer and the sandy path was fringed by lush grass. As a tracker, the going was easy because the grass would reveal if his quarry had left the footpath. He noticed from the art of tracking for many years that the rhino had done just that. There was a clear half-moon of flattened grass to the right of the footpath before it returned to the sandy track. Intuitively the tracker decided to do the same, hoping to feel his way through the rhino’s reasoning. When he returned to the footpath he looked back to see a spider’s web backlit at the very height of where the rhinos head would have been. It was fully intact and to the tracker, this represented respect. Kilimanjaro detoured out of respect, an acknowledgement that “I have the strength to do you harm but I chose not to”. Neither party had to prove their strength to one another. You never need to do so if you already know who you are and if you are permitted to authentically be yourself. If who you are is grounded in love and a longing for peace, Ubuntu will prevail. You can coexist in a peacefully powerful way that cannot be described in words.

We sat for a long time after we no longer heard Kilimanjaro feed behind us. We recalled the experience to each other as if hearing it from three different angles would bring it back to life again. The sun began its decent past the outline of the marula grove. A lion started to call in the distance to send a final blessing from Africa. We smiled at each other with full hearts and soaring spirits. It was time to go. We walked the distance back to the vehicle as if hovering in thin air, deep in thought about the life changing experience we had all enjoyed.

Thank you Kilimanjaro for allowing us to track you so that we could collar you to protect you from those who want to reduce you to only the value of your ivory. Thank you for graciously increasing my dose of love and appreciation for what you represent. Thank you Alan McSmith for not only creating but for sharing a sacred moment. Robin Cook, I am glad that this birthday gift will forever be in your memory bank.

Please note this represents a unique and special occasion not to be taken as the norm. We knew the nature of this elephant and had an extremely experienced trails guide in Alan McSmith to accompanying us. Collectively we had more than 50 years of working with elephants between us. 

World’s first virtual elephant collaring!

By Dr Michelle Henley

Elephants Alive achieved a world first during lockdown – a live virtual collaring, with more than 250 viewers tuning in from around the world to watch the collaring of two majestic bulls.

Elephants Alive knows the drill when it comes to collaring elephants. With trusted vets like Drs. Joel Alves and Ben Muller as well as legendary pilots like Gerry McDonald, we operate like an oiled machine. This comes with the experience of having collared 185 elephants throughout South Africa and Mozambique since 1998. The data produced is invaluable. We obtain landscape insights into where there should be corridors to link protected areas, how elephants avoid conflict by becoming nocturnal, how they forge friendships and wander together as males exploring new areas, how they react to boundaries (both fences and virtual political international boundaries), how often they encounter water and other resources, how reproductive cycles drive set patterns and how they plan crop-raids. The list is endless but importantly the technology has advanced to include immobility alarms, speed alarms and proximity to building alarms. This enables us to know when an elephant is in danger so the collars are also providing a measure of protection, which is critical as we are dealing with the remaining 3% of the continental population of elephants compared to a 100 years ago!

It is already a surreal experience to zoom in on Google Earth in the mornings and watch all our active collars update and crawl across the landscape like a pot of boiling spaghetti. Each elephant with its own colour and fascinating timeline of movement stretched behind it, telling the story of the decisions it needs to take in its everyday life.

Recently we upped the stakes of any virtual experience. Blue Sky Society Trust kindly started a fundraising campaign to help us raise the required funds to pay for the collars and the operational expenses. After booking virtual seats, over 250 viewers were soon glued to the action from their homes due to the live broadcast by Painted Dog TV. Viewers got to see Interviews with the team on site with all the real-life action happening in the background. Gerry’s helicopter blades were beating while he acrobatically kept everybody spellbound. Dust was settling while blood samples and body measurements were being taken. All the while Vusi Mathe and Mike Kendrick from Wild Shots Outreach were captured still photographs of the experience.

Credit: Wild Shots Outreach

With us on the ground, the virtual participants got to hear an elephant snoring or see somebody touch the silky tusks, stroke and marvel at the landscape of warm grainy skin covered in hairs. Although you could not feel the cool veins in the ears pulsing the blood through the warm body or smell the carrot-like breath of the sleeping giant, we believe that together with our trusted partners we have opened a new window into an unforgettable experience. COVID makes you creative, necessity leads to invention.

Credit: Wild Shots Outreach

We would like to thank Blue Sky Society Trust for all your incredible support. Brent Leo Smith from Painted Dog TV for the Broadcast. Wild Shots Outreach for the lovely images and the Wardens of Klaserie- and Timbavati Nature Reserve for permits and security. We value each bit of incredible experience brought to the table by Dr. Joel Alves, Gerry McDonald and the Elephants Alive team. Nothing can happen without the funds. To the Tangle Wood Foundation and Richy Foshan Industries and Investments Co, Ltd, thank you for drawing a crowd and investing in the collars. Thank you to each and every viewer for your donation or seat ticket which helped us reach our target. We are so glad we could share this visceral experience with you and hope for more to come.

Zoya and Naru

This charming new story book is an exciting collaboration between renowned British author Caroline Montague and Dr Michelle Henley, whose beautiful drawings are illustrating the book. Zoya and Naru is a story about love and trust, hope and bravery in the face of the odds. Join Zoya and Naru on their quest to find Zoya’s family. As well as being Elephants Alive’s Director, Co-Founder and Principal Researcher, Michelle is a talented artist. The book is to be published later this year and half the profits will be generously donated to Elephants Alive by Caroline. Until publication, you can follow their story on social media:

Please contact info2u@elephantsalive.org if you would be interested in a copy. We would like to show the publishers a long list of potential buyers. If any of the drawings grab your attention, also please let us know as we will auction these for more funds once the book is out.

A quarter of a century and for the love of elephants

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.