Tag Archives: elephants

Collared elephants are the storytellers of connected landscapes

By Dr. Michelle Henley

Dr Joao Almeida and Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação (ANAC) collaring a bull named Swazi who has been caught red-handed crop-raiding. Swazi get his name from the little detour he makes along the route into Eswatini (Swaziland) (photo: Saving the Survivors)

As a potential Kruger National Park (KNP) tourist, you may self-drive into an elephant sighting. Depending on your view and the type of sighting, they may keep your attention for an hour. If it is only a group of young bulls and not a family unit with all the intricacies of family life and the delightful elephant babies to observe, you would probably leave the sighting sooner. You may have noticed a collar on one on or two of the bulls, especially in the southern region of the Kruger. As you watch them peacefully feed and rhythmically flapping their ears, you would never have guessed where these bulls have been. You would never know what incredible institutional knowledge is locked within their brains and the paths that these collared elephants are courageously forging.  

Since 2018, with the help of Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação (ANAC), the Mozambique Wildlife Alliance (MWA), Saving the Survivors and our donors, we collared a number of elephants outside of the protected areas in southern Mozambique. The collaring operations were conducted by our dedicated colleagues Drs. Carlos Lopes Pereira, Joao Almeida, Hugo Pereira and Hagnesio Chiponde and have revealed some extraordinary journeys. While the corridor-moving elephants of Mozambique have been mapping the connectivity of a larger landscape with their tracks, on the other side of the globe, 15 Asian elephants have wandered 500km from Xishuangbanna, a nature reserve in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, north toward an unknown destination. There the local government has deployed 14 drones and some 500 people to keep the herd safe. Eight people act as constant bodyguards tracking them 24 hours a day and ensuring that they are lead away from densely populated areas by providing over two tonnes of elephant food where needed. The State TV has been following their every move with the hashtag #WhyElephantsTrekkingNorth viewed more than 16 million times on Weibo. Drone footage of them sleeping has attracted 200 million views per day.

Part of the famous herd of elephants. They are exhausted after travelling over 500km north from Xishuangbanna, a reserve in China. The elephants have crossed human infrastructure and helped themselves to crops and water sources along the way (photo: China Central Television.)

Our bachelor herd of over 10 trailblazing elephants have trekked without the fanfare nearly 200km across the unfenced landscape of southern Mozambique after first resting in the Kruger National Park over high summer. Like their Asian counterparts, they have crossed busy roads, densely human dominated areas, commercial farmlands, mines and subsistence croplands, mostly under the cover of darkness and at high speeds. In 2020, they came some 8km short of reaching the Futi corridor before being chased back by gunfire, as they have not left subsistence crops and dams untouched in their wake. This year they are on the same route again and we hope that they will be able to join with the unique coastal elephant population of Maputo Special Reserve (MSR). Last year’s journey saw the tracks of the MSR family units that we had collared in 2019 overlap with those of the bulls. The path finding bulls have thus uniquely linked Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area to Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area. Declared Transfrontier Conservation Areas have gone a long way to assist with the large spatial requirements of elephants across international borders but these bulls are showing us that our thinking is still too small.

The trailblazing route of the collared bulls, linking three zones of intense use (southern Kruger, Namaacha Valley and south of Ghangalane) via corridor routes with the Futi corridor which used to be a historical migration route between Maputo Special Reserve on the coast of Mozambique and Tembe National Park in Kwazulu Natal in South Africa (map: Elephants Alive GIS team).

Increasing human populations and different land-use practices, security measures or fences separating international borders has historically led to a variation in elephant densities across Protected Areas (PAs). High local densities of elephants, such as in the KNP and MSR, could not only lower the biodiversity of the ecosystems they occupy, but also lead to less genetic diversity within this segment of the wider elephant population (meta-population). Consequently, enabling natural movements into other areas of the TFCA and beyond becomes critical for the long-term sustainability of PAs with locally increasing elephant populations. Establishing corridors which link PAs across international boundaries and within countries become vital to extensively increase elephant habitat and potentially chanel elephant movements to National Parks that have low elephant densities or are in need of repopulation following the recent declines in areas due to the illigal trade in ivory.

The corridor moving elephants in Mozambique often confront subsistence farmers resulting in crop-raiding events which exaserbate the hardship many of these poverty stricken people deal with due to seasonal droughts and floods. A profound understanding of elephants’ movements and spatial requirements is thus needed, as well as the socio-economic needs of the people that have to share land with elephants. Elephants Alive, with the help of the Elephant Crisis Fund and JAMMA International, have recently deployed a Rapid Resonse Unit (RRU) to assist with the safety of people and their assets by distributing mitigtion toolboxes ahead of time to keep the elephants away from crops. Antonio Alverca who spearheads the RRU together with Antonia Cumbana and Freis Mabuto are the real-time elephant shepherds. This reactive mitigation strategy will be bolstered by a longer term plan to promote human-elephant coexistence in corridors identified by collared elephants and owned by the relevant communities so that people’s livelihoods become compatible with the conservation outcomes planned for corridor areas. The cultivation of elephant unpalatable crops in conflict zones based on the experience gained from the Proof of Concept project conducted in South Africa and in collaboration with the  Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit will ensure the supplementation of existing incomes by means of crops unattractive to elephants but with a market value. Concurrently, greater food security of crops readily eaten by elephants will be on offer due to their protection via beehive fences and broad barriers of unpalatable crops. We have already gained the support of the Elephant Crisis Fund, the Oak Foundation, JAMMA International and the Kate Sanderson Bequest Fund for the long-term plans in Mozambique while the Tanglewood Foundation, the Lions Share and the Rufford Foundation have financed the demonstration bee- and crop gardens in South Africa.

I watch the collared bull move slowly and deliberately in southern Kruger. There is a mischievous glint in his amber eye, which almost gives away his secrets of great journeys and dangerous adventures. Actively feeding in the open in Kruger does not tell you about his high-speed nocturnal forays in Mozambique to get what he needs after hiding out in thick bush during the day along his journey to the coast. When you next watch a collared elephant, think about the story-boxes they carry around their neck. From their collars, we download the routes to their networks of paths that cover great distances. Often the elephants will line their movement corridors with seeds they ingested in Kruger and which grow into tall trees they may plant like flags mapping their routes of adventure. Their big bodies and institutional memories for far off places are not made for small enclosures or fences. They will push our boundaries. They will keep at it until we pay attention. They will remind us how big our conservation planning should be. They will stretch your imagination. They will keep trying your patience if your thinking is too small. Eventually, you will understand what they are trying to tell you. When you see that vista of a large elephant framed minutely against the background of true wilderness, both you and the elephants will know you have arrived and the journey was worth the strife. Remember to think of these things when next you observe an elephant bull in Kruger with a story-box (collar) attached to it.

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.

Collaring elephants in Gilé National Reserve – wilderness at its best!

by Dr. Michelle Henley

Credit: Julie Kern

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left, o let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (Inversnaid 1881)

There is a special kind of peace to be found in the company of many trees. The purity of air is an added blessing given by the surrounding oxygen-producing and sunlight-seeking aspiring trees. I marvel at the diversity of the stem shapes, trying to follow them with my eyes to the upper crowns where the patterned blue sky is largely hidden by the chlorophyll puzzle of many leaf shapes. Alessandro Fusari (the responsible FFS-IGF Foundation Technical Advisor), walks us through the Miombo Forest of Gilé National Reserve in Mozambique. The grass is tall and rank, the forest vast and seemingly endless. We have come here to find elephants to collar.

Credit: Julie Kern

Alessandro is a wealth of information about the area and its history. He has known this jewel for 20 years. Before the magic of the forests envelops us, we turn back in anticipation of the landing helicopter so the operation can start. We all realise that this is not going to be an easy task as the dambos (natural open patches in the woodlands filled with grasses, rushes and sedges) are few and far between, offering very little opportunities for the helicopter to land. The dense canopy can easily conceal a herd of wily elephants.

Credit: Julie Kern

However, we could not wish for a more experienced team under the meticulous planning of Alessandro. We have Drs. Thomas Prin (Project Manager for FFS-IGF), Joao Almeida (Wildlife Veterinarian for Saving the Survivors) and Ben Muller (Wildlife Veterinarian for Wildlifevets.net). Our pilot (Peter Perlstein from Wildlife Helicopters Mozambique) comes with 38 years of wildlife flying experience

Credit: Julie Kern

On the ground we have Dr Julieta Lichuge as Wildlife Veterinarian and Elias Matsinhe as Head of Communication and Marketing for ANAC (Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação). Tersio Joaquim David represents the FFS-IGF PhD Candidate who will be working with the tracking data amongst many other responsibilities. Then there is a group of nine ladies made up of the Elephants Alive team accompanied by five Blue Sky Society expedition members under the leadership of Carla Geyser. We here to help spot elephants, carry equipment, fit collars and collect data via the five collars kindly donated by FFS-IGF (Foundation François Sommer and the International Foundation for Wildlife Management) and Blue Sky Society.

Photo Credit: Anka Bedetti

“What to do?’’ was a phrase we jovially repeated after Alessandro as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack could not be closer to the truth than finding an elephant to dart in a closed canopy of miombo woodland. Fortuitously, Dr Carlos Lopes Pereira from ANAC had collared four elephants in 2016 so we had a starting point with one operational collar left sending out a VHF signal in the sea of bush which stretched for 2,860 km² before us.

Photo credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

Away from the base camps on either side of the Reserve there is only one main road intersecting the breathtaking, unfragmented landscape spread below the beating blades of the helicopter. Anka Bedetti (The Elephants Alive Tracking Project Manager) kept the flying and darting teams on track so that the first tuskless cow was found relatively easily before reaching the one remaining collared cow who was due for a replacement collar.

Credit: Ben Muller

Thereafter it takes 20 hours of flying outside of Gilé into the neighbouring Community Coutada and even beyond to collar another two cows and a bull, all of which are tucked away in ever denser forest.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

Our time and the budgeted hours come to an end too soon. One collar is left to deploy during a future mission together with two buffalo collars which Thomas hopes to deploy on some reintroduced buffalo herds.

Plumes of fires dotted on the horizon remind us all that there is still much to do in Gilé. The Reserve needs more rangers, more elephants and general game. It needs to be on the map as a tourist destination.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

The quiet forests and the vast wilderness seem to echo with potential and if these trees could speak they would surely proudly talk of Gilé’s former glory when the Reserve was teaming with black rhino, elephants, and numerous other species including large predators which all hid in the shadows of these same trees.

Credit: Anka Bedetti

ANAC and FFS-IGF have joined hands to start the journey to ensure that the animals are brought back and protected. The collared sentinels will lead the way and map the footpaths where we all hope other soft-soles and sharp hooves will also leave their mark. Gilé National Reserve’s surrounding Coutada of Mulela will be community-owned, representing a new model where the people will have ownership of the hope and potential that the Reserve offers as a neighbour.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

As we leave the emerald which is Gilé National Reserve, we cross into the buffer zone and then fly over the many shambas (farmlands) with their colourful inhabitants dressed in bright shweshwe prints while standing in clean-swept yards surrounded by rows of cassava crops. I keep thinking of those Brachystegia woodlands and the few remaining secretive elephants.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

We follow the lazy bends of the Lice River heading southward and back towards Quelimane. As I look back towards Gilé the trees, people and wildlife seem to blur together on the horizon. I close my eyes in an attempt to burn the Reserve’s beauty into my mind and whisper: “Let them be left, wildness and wet until we meet again’’.

Credit: Julie Kern