Tag Archives: elephants

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

Elephants and Vultures – It’s Complicated

Written by Robin Cook

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

The white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is a critically endangered species in the Greater Kruger National Park (Greater KNP), with adults being threatened by a variety of factors such as poisonings, electrocutions, muti-trade and habitat loss. These factors place great strain on an already decreasing population. However, as white-backed vultures nest at the top of big trees, it is also a possibility that impact by African elephant (Loxodonta africana) on big tree species may affect vulture nesting success. Therefore, Elephants Alive have been monitoring elephant impact on vulture nesting trees since 2008. Our surveys take place across the Associated Private Nature Reserves of the Greater KNP, with this year being the first year that Thornybush Private Nature Reserve has been included in the survey. This long-term survey allows us to gain an understanding of the size class and species of trees for which vultures select, the elephant impact levels on these trees, as well as the survival rates of the trees and vulture nests. And what do we find? A complex relationship. White-backed vultures nest in a variety of tree species, some which are more vulnerable to elephant impact than others. Vulture nests are also vulnerable to heavy winds, which have frequented the Greater KNP in recent months. Therefore, by assessing a variety of habitat-types and tree species across the Greater KNP, we are gaining a clearer understanding of where elephant impact may be a concern and where it may not be. This information is then fed back to reserve management to aid in the conservation of vultures and their nesting trees.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

We are very grateful to all reserve management for granting us permission to continue with this survey, as well as to Spencer and Cheryl Morrison, Aida Ettayeb, Jessica Wilmot and Hiral Naik who helped in the field during the 2019 survey. Cheryl Morrison is also thanked for measuring tree size dimensions on completion of the field work. A special word of thank to Sieglinde Rode who started this study with Dr. Michelle Henley as part of her MSc in 2008 and who has sadly passed away. We would also like to thank Johna Turner for many years of offering protection to field assistants in the past.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb
Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb