Mac's big grey body lay on its side, one splendid tusk pointing skywards. Then the silence of the veld was broken by a sustained "whooooosh", and the stream of air coming out of his trunk blew tiny grains of sand and dry grass away. Suddenly about 20 people descended on the mighty herbivore, and the slow, regular sounds of his breathing were drowned out in the hubbub of volunteers trying to capture as much data as possible before the giant was awakened to continue his search for a female, fitted out with a brand new satellite collar.
Dr Michelle Henley was smiling in delight at being reunited with the first elephant collared in her ambitious project to learn more about elephant movements and behaviour between the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) and the Kruger National Park. Conducted under the umbrella of Save the Elephants, the project is one of six in Africa. Mac, initially collared in a green hunt in May 2002, was due for a replacement collar as his existing GPS was giving trouble and the batteries powering the system were due to run flat soon.
Luckily for Michelle, he wandered into the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve on his annual musth trek on the same day that two other elephants were scheduled to be collared. Mac was soon up and away after his anaesthetic was reversed, and the volunteers had noted down vital statistics such as foot size, tusk size, body length and shoulder height. Three tail hairs were also plucked and blood drawn for future genetic analysis. The tail hairs can also provide valuable insight into an elephant's diet by analysing the carbon isotopes present.
One task that proved slightly more taxing to the volunteers was the taking of footprints so that Mac's spoor could be identified. This proved to be no mean feat with the two legs lying on the ground. The "pedicure team" proved up to the task, improving their technique as they went along. The entire procedure was repeated with two more elephants, a young male now christened Barry, and female called Mandy. Barry and Mandy each got a new technological innovation – a cellphone collar, which transmits GPS readings to the nearest cellphone tower, rather than beaming them up to a satellite.
The collars can store up to 60,000 GPS readings when out of range of a tower and use much less battery power than satellite collars. They also cost significantly less than a satellite collar. The elephants were darted by vet Cobus Raath from a helicopter, while his associate Ferreira du Plessis waited on the ground to rush in and ensure the elephants' trunks were not blocked when the sedative took effect. Once down, the elephants' vital signs are monitored using an electronic monitor that clips on to the elephant's ear, in much the same way that hospitals can measure a person's pulse with a clip on their finger.
When the collar has been fitted, the anaesthetic is reversed and the elephant gets up within minutes. All three elephants stood up, stood still for a few seconds, and then wandered away without a backward glance, looking as if nothing had happened. With the collaring of Barry and Mandy, Michelle and her husband Steve can now keep track of eight elephants, three females and five males, all collared in the last few years. Mac, the largest tusker in the Henleys' project, has an enormous home range. He spends the majority of his year in Kruger near Shingwedzi, but travels to the APNR every year in early winter during his musth period.
The other elephants all have smaller home ranges, moving around amongst the various reserves in the APNR and the adjoining Kruger National Park. By collaring a female, the activity of her entire breeding herd can be inferred. All the collars used in the project have been donated, and the sponsors of the collars remembered by the elephant's new nickname. Recently the service fees for the satellite transmissions have also been sponsored by the Wildlife and Environment Society Lowveld branch.