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.

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