On December 7, 2006 two vets, Dr Danny Govender and Dr Peter Buss from Kruger National Park (KNP) Veterinary Wildlife Services, and pilot Hennie de Waal left from Skukuza to fit collars to seven bull elephants. It was an early 04h30 start to fly to Shingwedzi to beat the heat, as there is a risk of an elephant suffering from heat stress if captured later in the day when the temperatures are high. The brief was to collar bull elephants in the area east of Shingwedzi camp and between the Shingwedzi and the Letaba Rivers.
This is the area bordering the Mozambican Limpopo National Park where the largest section of the fence between the parks has been removed. Individual mature (over 35 years) bulls were selected on the basis of their shoulder height, estimated at over three metres and the size of their tusks. Lone bulls were chosen, rather than males associated with herds.
Of the seven elephants fitted with satellite/GPS collars, five were darted in the Shingwedzi river valley area and two in the Mkhatsi spruit. These collars record the elephants' movements and the information is sent via a satellite link up to the researchers, who can plot the GPS coordinates on a map to see the distances each elephant has travelled.
The capture operation was relatively quick per bull, taking on average only 30 minutes from darting to waking up with a newly fitted collar. Once the elephant was selected from the air, it was darted with a tranquilliser, after which it takes about six to seven minutes for the effects to take hold and immobilise the elephant.
Once the elephant was anaesthetised, routine blood samples were taken for the bio-bank and the collar was fitted and bolted securely in place. As there was no ground-crew necessary with this capture operation, the vets had to work quickly. They use a special hook to help guide the collar under the sleeping elephant's neck as a sleeping elephant is too heavy to move.
These collars will be used to provide information as part of a research project to monitor where these elephants are moving to and how far they travel. This project is being run by the husband and wife team of Drs Steve and Michelle Henley. The project is interested in seeing if the bull elephants move over long distances and if they do in fact cross the border into Mozambique to spend time in the Limpopo National Park. As the fences are no longer hindering their movements it will be interesting to see if the bulls are expanding their range, regardless of international boundaries that may have stopped them in the past.
Steve commented that the idea to monitor movements between Kruger and Mozambique "has been floated for a while" and he is delighted that things came together to collar the seven bulls. Previous research by the Henleys has shown that a well-known collared elephant bull called Mac moves huge distances while in musth and the same could be possible for some of the newly collared bulls.
These bulls were all collared in the area of Kruger where Mac spends his time when not in musth, and so may offer added insight into Mac's behaviour. The process of watching where the elephants move to is now underway, and will certainly provide a greater insight into the places they choose to visit.
By Michele Hofmeyr with Danny Govender
In Kruger National Park