WHO IS WHO? by Dr. Julie Kern
How many large-tusked bulls remain in the APNR? How
socially connected are different population members? How successful are
human-elephant conflict mitigation methods? These
questions are all examples of key research objectives for Elephants Alive. If
at first glance you think these questions have little in common, look again and
you’ll see they all rely on a key piece of information – who’s who.
Identifying elephant bulls falls
under the umbrella of the ID Study and is Elephants Alive’s longest-running
project, having begun in 1996. Since then, the team have identified almost
1,500 individual bulls. Identifying elephants requires excellent observation
skills and the team pay special attention to any noticeable physical features
which differ between individuals, from tusk configuration and body appearance,
to characteristic ear patterns, such as notches, tears and holes. Using photographs
collected at each sighting, identikits are drawn for each individual elephant, and
subsequently used to identify the individuals seen in the field. If you’re keen
to hone your detective skills, read on for our selection of top
elephant-identification tips and tricks to use at your next sighting.
Many individuals have startling body features which can
make their identification quick and simple. Look out for collapsed or folded
ears, missing tails or trunk tips, and the location of scars or lumps.
Also take note of the tusks - any birdwatchers
will be familiar with the acronym ‘GISS’ or general impression of size and
shape’, a rule which also holds true in this case. Are they short or long, thin
or thick, straight, splayed or skew? Are both tusks present, and if not, is one
simply broken at the base or missing altogether? When missing entirely, the
tusk socket is conspicuously empty (below far right).
Play it by
Once you’ve checked the more obvious features, it’s time
to take a closer look at an elephant’s ears. If there are any tears, notches or
holes, pay attention to their location, size and shape. Unfortunately, many
individuals have few notches and holes in their ears, especially younger
elephants, which makes them much harder to identify. In this case, you can
often find a clue to their identity by noting venation patterns on the ears.
they are a changin’
Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s worth remembering
that much like ourselves, an elephant’s physical features are likely to change
over time as tusks break, another tear appears, or holes pull through leaving a
notch in their place. Take Kierie-Klapper (below), a young bull first seen in
2005 and resighted in most years since. In 2013 a new hole appeared in his
lower left ear, and earlier this year, another notch was added to the top of
his right ear.
Elephants Alive has recently published an Elephant ID
Guide in conjunction with Amarula, featuring 30 of the most iconic individuals
in the APNR. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy or alternatively, if you
have photographs from your own sightings that you’d like to add to our Citizen
Sightings database, please forward them to email@example.com.