Collaring elephants: behind the scenes

Written by: Victoria Baldwin

It takes 26 of my hands to palm the girth of an average elephant collar. Nothing about clasping something around a neck that big feels right, but collaring is necessary these days. It serves as one of the ways we can keep track of how many elephants are left, as well as understand their social circles, migration patterns and how they interact with their habitat.

With an elephant poached every fifteen minutes, efforts to keep these giants on our earth are essential. After spending some time with the non-profit organisation, Elephants Alive, and hearing from Craig Spencer, warden of Balule Nature Reserve, I have a more comprehensive understanding of how dire the situation is. Seeing what people have done to these animals does not make me proud to be human.

The members of Elephants Alive devote their lives to protect not only elephants but many endangered species including plant life. In a perfect world we would not have to interfere, but the poaching market yields billions and populations have dwindled so low that drastic measures need to be taken. In 1979 there were 1.3 million elephants. Now official numbers are just over 400,000 but new research estimates from 2013 are closer to 270,000. We lose about 38,000 elephants a year.

Collaring sounds bad but it doesn’t hurt the elephants. Each collar, equipped with a GPS tracking device and fitted specially per individual, weighs around 12kg and reaches 3 to 4 metres in length. The elephant is darted with a morphine derivative from a helicopter to make the process easier while the rest of its herd is driven away so they don’t think their family member is being killed. The darted elephant is only unconscious for about half an hour until an antidote to the tranquiliser is administered. The elephant will recover within a minute and make an orienting call to reunite with its herd in less than an hour. For an average of four to five years the collar’s battery allows researchers to download information revealing movement patterns. These patterns help us predict where elephants will be, understand social dynamics and diets, and be aware of any poaching attempts. If one of the elephants is severely injured or dies, its GPS locator will remain stationary and alert researchers.

A couple days ago we had the privilege of accompanying Elephants Alive and some of the rangers of Sefapane Lodge in collaring three elephants in their 20s from the Cleveland Reserve. Michelle Henley, project manager at Elephants Alive, said: “It is a risky procedure but I wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have the vet, Cobus Raath. He’s darted over 2,000 elephants with zero fatalities. We’re very lucky to have him.”

Veterinarian, Cobus Raath working quickly to attach a GPS collar.

Veterinarian, Cobus Raath working quickly to attach a GPS collar.

Nevertheless, for the first elephant, we were all nervous. The helicopter flew low over the trees, circling a young bull running on the ground. Dust clouds rose in great plumes, obscuring our view. In minutes the elephant was down and the helicopter landed close by. Elephants Alive staff rushed in as we hung back, waiting for the go-ahead. The elephant had fallen in a thicket with his legs too far in the air, crushing himself under his own weight. We had to work fast or he could suffocate. As I walked towards him, his breath sounded like the ocean. His belly came up to my shoulder. A few interns helped take measurements of his body, legs and tusks, then plucked the two longest hairs from his tail to determine his diet and migration. They felt like wire. The vet took blood samples from a big vein in the ear. I put my fingers on it and counted his pulse under my breath. His ear felt rubbery and soft. Slowly I lifted his ear to see his left eye closed. I wondered if he dreams.

Measurements were done within 15 minutes. Back in the vehicles we waited as the vet administered the antidote. Ropes were called for to help the elephant stand. Just over a dirt mound I could see the bull struggling, rocking himself to shift his centre of gravity. Ears flapped, his trunk searched for something to grab onto and in one strong heave, he got to his feet. He looked at us briefly then turned and walked away to find his family. One down, two to go. The other two went much more smoothly; we even had time to take family photos.

Youth 4 African Wildlife with the last of three collared elephants after a long, successful day.

Youth 4 African Wildlife with the last of three collared elephants after a long, successful day.

Despite being harmless to the elephant, collars are still invasive. Some reserves do not like their elephants collared because it can put off tourists. People don’t want to see an elephant in the wild collared like a dog. Conservationists have experimented with GPS tracking chips, but elephant skin is so thick that abscesses inevitably form and there are infections. It would be best to insert the chip into the tusk, but technology isn’t there yet and it is extremely expensive.

Non-profit organisations and nature reserves just don’t have the funding to effectively protect their animals or do the research needed to understand them. Balule Nature Reserve only receives 35% of their funding from the government. The rest is donated and they still don’t have enough. They patrol with old vehicles full of bullet holes and bush wounds, and their employees are paid a pittance, working purely for the love of nature. They work round the clock to track and protect the animals in their reserve, and poaching is only increasing. Researchers and conservationists cannot save elephants just through collaring and tracking their movements. People like you and me need to educate ourselves, spread awareness, donate appropriately, and most importantly push our politicians to ask Africa’s states to pass harder legislation laws and control their poaching problem.

If France started destroying the Louvre piece by piece, the world wouldn’t stay silent.

© Mira Nabulsi

© Mira Nabulsi

Youth 4 African Wildlife

Youth 4 African Wildlife are an international Generation-Y group raising global awareness about the plight of endangered African wildlife and wildlife crime through experiential research, social media, photography and film.

Africa Geographic