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Elephant Collaring with Elephants Alive on our Conservation Self Drive Adventure, Kruger National Park

Updated: May 11

Today I was brought to tears for the first time on a Self Drive Adventure. They were tears of awe brought on by an elephant collaring experience. (View the experience in the video below.)


What is Elephant Collaring?

Elephant collaring is the process of darting an elephant and while it sleeps, putting a GPS tracking collar on them. The GPS supplies tracking information to monitor their movement patterns and supplies valuable data to research teams.

How does elephant collaring work with Elephants Alive?

The day started very early, rising at 3.30am to leave at 4.30am and drive one hour from camp to meet one of the vets, Eugene, that was also part of providing security and carrying a .375 rifle.  This is in case the worst case of attack by animals.  There is a high degree of focus put on safety not only of those engaged in the collaring but of the animal involved.  If at any stage the vets seem there is too much stress or danger for the animal the collaring will not go ahead.

 

The team from Elephants Alive arrived shortly after and we moved to the site where the helicopter would arrive with the pilot and another vet who would find a suitable elephant and then dart it from the air. For 25 years this organisation has been using science to ensure the survival of Southern Africa's elephant population.

 

We then met Induna Mabunda the local leader of this community. Then the King arrived as well as two representatives from the police, department of the environment and other members of the community. 

 

This was a very special event as this was the first collaring event for this community that has a large conservancy that borders the Kruger National Park.  It is apparently a very “political” thing with many elements of the community wanted to be invited.  


We were able to be there as our group made a donation that was able to fund the collaring operation (see photo of donor group below).  We were the only people external to the community and the collaring team that were allowed to attend.

elephant collar donors from Self Drive Adventures

The helicopter eventually arrived and set down close to the village bringing droves of the residents out to see a helicopter up close and get selfies with it. 

 

We formed a circle then all the participants were introduced and then a safety briefing of what was to happen and how the operation would work was explained.

 

One of the most critical parts of the operation is to have the elephants darted close to one of the limited number of vehicle tracks in the conservancy.  As the elephant falls to the ground sometimes they fall forward onto their sternum.  If that happens elephant can’t breathe and then you have to pull it with ropes onto its side.  If the elephant is off the track this sometimes means a high speed “bush bash” to get to the elephant ASAP to ensure its wellbeing.

 

Also if you have to push it over the legs punch out, which weighing 5-6 tonnes you can imagine could take out a person standing in the way quite easily!

 

We were shown the collar that weighs around 10kg.  Heavy for humans but doesn’t bother the elephant other than an initial surprise to find it there.  they say it is more the smell of human hands on it that they notice and react to initially and then it doesn’t seem to bother them beyond that.

 

The helicopter then went off to look for a suitable elephant either a bull or a breeding female.  

 

We loaded up onto a safari vehicle or into our own cars and drove into the conservancy being directed by radio from the helicopter.

 

They located a suitable male, Elephants Alive then confirmed the operation was live and the bull was darted.



Gerry the amazing pilot was able to gently push the groggy bull towards the road. They try to get them right on the road sometime but they could see there was an old fence that may have injured the elephant if he fell there so they left him in the bush but we could see him from our location on the track.

 

As he started to go down Eugene called that he thought he was falling forward onto his sternum so it was out of the cars quickly and we raced into the bush, Michelle running with the heavy collar which she seemed to manage to get around his neck before he was pushed onto his side - his huge legs kicking out as they had told us to be careful off.

 

Then all sorts of things happen that we were able to get involved in.  Measurement of leg size, trunk size, blood and hair samples just to name a few as the collar was secured and activated.

 

The bull was snoring loudly throughout the whole process.  It is a sound I shall never forget. Turn up your sound for the video below - AMAZING!

 


The underside of his ear was sprayed with water to evaporate and keep him cool as Ben, the vet who had darted the bull, explained various things about the bull.

 

He was a prime bull of breeding age, around 5-6 tonnes and around 35 years old.  He was “right handed” you can tell by the callouses on the trunk which side they prefer to use.  He showed us right inside the mouth the teeth and also the nostrils that are located inside the mouth.  There was a small twig put inside the end of the trunk which kept the truck airway open and the delightful snoring blared on throughout the explanation.  We were able to touch the elephant and have photos with him. Other than the rough thick hair, the skin is quite soft (and dirty).

How do you name an elephant?

We had about 30 minutes the elephant bull. During this time I asked the village leader what he was going to name him. It seems a bit unclear how this was happening whether it was him or the Long that was doing the making or if they were deciding this together.  Induna Mabunda wanted to name him Murhangeri "Leader" but we were told by Michelle later that Induna Mabunda and Nkosi Hlomela didn't agree on the name chosen and eventually the headman and the king settled on a new name which we will take forward:  Mantsena "Rememberence". This will be the name of “our elephant” when we get the tracking link.



We found out that Mantsensa was a known crop raider that brought other younger males with him, so he is an excellent one to have collared so they can alert the community and they can have their “deterrent team” in place to scared off the elephants when they turn up to crops. 

After all the work that needed to be done was complete, a "wake up" shot was administered and we all stood well back at the vehicles and watched Mantsena awake and feel his new collar. They apparently get used to it very quickly, it is mostly the smell of humans that interests them the first they notice it.

What type of food do elephants like and dislike?

Bees, Trees, Elephants and People” are the focal points of Elephants Alive.

 

We met the tree expert, Robin, who explained the research he had done on elephants and Marula trees.  They love the fruit of these trees.  They found that if they put native bee hives near the trees they had a 85% success rate of deterring the elephants.  This is because the bees swarm and they attack the eyes of the elephants.

 

Robin had also experimented setting up an “elephant cafeteria” with all types of crops to see what their likes and dislikes.  They disliked lemon grass, chili and other essential oils.  

 

This knowledge is then put to use in the village crop areas.  These crops are then planted around the border of the crop e.g. Lemon grass is planted along the fence and it then grows tall so that the elephants can see past it.  These crops are also used to supply an income to the village.

 

There are bee hives that are attached to wire that if the elephants break in then the hive is disturbed and the bees swam the elephants.

 

Other techniques are brews with ginger, garlic, eggs and chilli that is put on fabric and places on fences and hanging shiny pieces of metal that move in the breeze and also solar powered movement activated strobe lights which are effective at night.  Some of these techniques have been learned from other parts of Africa like Kenya and Tanzania.

 

With the help of Elephants Alive these techniques are all being used at the village and we were able to visit their garden and see how they have set this up in practice.  18 families farm this plot and Elephants Alive has also been able to help them fix their bore and lay irrigation pipes for them to water it more effectively.  The ladies welcomed the group with a song of thanks and showed us around and they treated us to freshly cooked beans and sweet potatoes.


What an amazing experience! Conservation is a complex issue and today was certainly an inspiring insight into work that is being carried out by dedicated and passionate people in Africa. We cannot thank enough Elephants Alive and Wild Wonderful World for pulling together the myriad the complicated logistics that allowed us to be involved in this project. It is an experience I shall never forget.

Find out more about our African Self Drive Adventures experiences on our website.




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