It was all connected – the GPS, the cellphone and the blue tooth technology – so how did a couple tonnes of elephant lying on its side in the bush fit in? The connection is not the new type of CyberTracker system used by park rangers, although that can easily accommodate all four features.
The connection is a diminutive elephant researcher with a fistful of blue dental cement and a desire to get stuck into her research – stuck all the way up to her armpits in a sleeping elephant’s mouth.
For the last four years the Save the Elephants Transboundary Elephant Research Programme has been collaring elephants to learn more about elephant movements and behaviour between the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) and the Kruger National Park.
Each time vet Cobus Raath darts an elephant for Drs Michelle and Steve Henley, they have fitted a tracking collar and recorded their subject’s vital statistics such as foot size, tusk size, body length and shoulder height. As science advanced, blood and hair samples were also taken to provide genetic and dietary information.
Ever keen for more information, the researchers have taken it one step further and decided to find out exactly how old their subjects are – and this involves a good look at the elephant’s teeth. Just as horses can be aged by looking at the wear on their teeth (hence ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’), so can elephants, who work their way through six sets of teeth into eventual old age.
Seeing as a firm ‘open wide’ will not work on a sleeping elephant, another plan has to be made. The plan involves Whaledent, a blue putty-like dental epoxy that sets in minutes to produce a cast of the teeth it is pressed up against. When the teeth belong to an elephant, things get interesting. Michelle describes the experience.
“Getting the jaw open was no easy task and sticking your arm next to the tongue to reach for the teeth towards the back of the jaw was slightly intimidating. One movement of the jaw could mean a few missing fingers. The breath and saliva smelt like grated carrots which helped us feel less scared as a meaty breath would have been difficult to face and stomach.”
Once set, the moulds are removed and filled with plaster of paris, producing an exact replica of the teeth in the elephant’s mouth, and ones that can be measured at leisure when the elephant is back on its feet. Although ageing elephants by their teeth is not a new thing, with the classic scientific paper being published in the 1960s, it is not surprising that few free-ranging elephants have been aged in this way prior to their death.
Last year Save the Elephants researchers in Kenya published a paper on their successes with dental moulds and immobilised elephants. Encouraged by this, Steve and Michelle teamed up with Dr Andre Ganswindt and Stefanie Münscher who had been practicing the technique on elephant jaws at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute.
Given the size of elephant teeth, they were grateful to Leon Coetzer for his generous donation of enough Whaledent to get the job done. The last six elephants that have been collared by the researchers have all been fitted with GPScellphone collars, and have had ‘blue tooth’ technology applied to their molars.
One cow showed signs of stirring during the attempt to get the tooth moulds, and the researchers decided that knowing her age was less important than reanaesthetising her, and so like a real lady, her exact age will remain a mystery. The other elephants collared have been aged at 14, 18, 24, 36 and 43 years each, with the possibility of each animal being one or two years older or younger.
The Transboundary Elephant Research Programme now keeps tabs on 14 male elephants and eight female elephants. The project is teaming up with other elephant researchers from The Elephant Movements and Bio-Economic Optimality Programme (Tembo) and sharing data with them.
Most of the elephants are collared with GPS - cellphone collars, which send location readings from the GPS via the cellphone network to the researchers. Two bulls that often wander out of cellphone range send their GPS readings to the researchers via a costly satellite linkup.
Michelle says, “We have deployed collars within three different groups as each category has shown distinctive patterns of movement – that is, prime bulls over 35 years of age with regular annual musth cycles, young bulls dispersing from their breeding units and females within breeding herds.”
She says that most of the collars are sponsored by donations, with Marlene MacKay from Tanda Tula Safari Lodge being a constant supporter of the project from the beginning. The Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa has also been sponsoring the service fees for the GPSsatellite collars for over two years, as well as providing GPS-cellphone collars for more elephants to be collared.
By Melissa Wray
In Kruger National Park