Since 1998, Steve and Michelle Henley of Save the Elephants - South Africa have studied elephant movements over the 35 000 km2 that make up the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Park (GLTP). Michelle recounts her journey with Africa's giants.
When I close my eyes I can imagine being at the sea, as the sound of rushing water fills the moisture-laden air. However, I am on the banks of the Nhlaralumi River at Tanda Tula Safari Lodge where rivers of mercy are gushing through the heart of the arid Bushveld.
The early summer rains have blessed the thirsty earth with abundance. Here in our corner of Africa another year draws to an end. It is time to reflect on the past years of elephant research that we have conducted and to look towards the future.
We have had the privilege of spending time in the shadow of these giants and have spent time piecing together their social lives based on our identification study which started more than a decade ago.
Since 1998, Save the Elephants - South Africa (STE-SA) has conducted 64 elephant collaring operations (which includes the re-collaring of selected study animals) in order to track elephant movements over the 35 000 km2 that make up the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Park (GLTP).
We have been surprised and humbled by the extent of their range, with bulls having home ranges of between 500 and 6000 km2 with an average of 2419 and 3839 km2 for older and younger bulls respectively.
Cows, anchored by their fierce concern for their young which have a limited ability to roam over large areas, move over smaller ranges of between 300 and 1500 km2 with an average home range size of 1255 km2.
We have seen that older bulls are capable of respecting geological divides more so than fences, with the western bulls occupying the granites and the eastern bulls rarely leaving the vegetation types that define the underlying basaltic soils.
We have watched individual musth bulls in their breeding prime abandon their sedentary habits within their bull areas to wander widely and amorously in search of females.
Over the years we have witnessed elephants gently and mournfully caress the bones of deceased next of kin and have seen the tottering movements of new born calves. Studying a long-lived species has made us realise that there is still so much that we need to discover despite our many findings since 1996.
Our understanding of elephants over the past couple of years may not be applicable in the future when global climate change and escalating poaching may paint a very different future for elephants.
One of the effects that global climate change can bring about is a predicted loss of area covered by current biomes in South Africa by up to 50% in 50 years.
Alarming evidence points to a poaching holocaust worse than the peak in 1980. Based on confiscated ivory records as many as 38,000 elephants are presently estimated to be poached each year, which indicates that elephants could disappear in as little as 15 years from most of sub-Saharan Africa.
As we look toward the future we should not be lulled into a false sense of security concerning the future of our 'well protected' elephants. Ever-increasing human populations and monetary systems that are dependent on sustained growth shape human society and threaten fragile ecosystems worldwide.
With economics defined as the study of the way in which people satisfy their needs, which are unlimited, with limited (scarce) resources available to them3, there is little wonder as to why our planet needs protection. Has the time not come for us to reconsider the two concepts that are central to economics (scarcity and choice) in order for us to learn to curtail our needs and value and protect our limited resources?
I watch a procession of elephants walk past in the soft rain. Countless drops of mercy wash the arid dust of seasons past from their bodies. Slowly their large gleaming bulks are swallowed up by the mist ahead. I hope that mercy will accompany our research efforts on elephants in future. Yes, we all need mercy and wisdom to navigate the uncertainty ahead.
The STE-SA Transboundary Elephant Research Programme receives a substantial portion of its funding from Marlene McCay and Tanda Tula Safari Lodge.
We are very grateful for the recent financial support that we have received from the US Fish and Wildlife's African Elephant Conservation Fund. Additional significant funding has been received from ConservAfrica, Intel, Toyota, The Gower Trust, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa and the Wilderness Safari Trust.
A number of elephant collars have been sponsored by individuals (Barry Mence, Brian and Claire Makare, Irving and Yvonne Tucker, Joubert de Lange, Lonnie Strickland, Martin and Sophie Haupt, Stefan Bruer and Tony McClellan).
Last but not least, we appreciate the support of SANParks, the landowners and managers of the Timbavati, Klaserie, Umbabat and Balule Private Nature Reserves. If you would like to make a financial contribution towards STE-SA, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Wasser, S.K., Clark, B.S. & Laurie, C. 2009. The Ivory Trail. Scientific American 68-76.
2 DEAT, September 2004. A National Climate Change Strategy for South Africa. 48pp.
3 Gouws, E. 2003. Economic Literacy and Entrepreneurship, Study Guide 2 for PFC103-S, University of South Africa, Pretoria.
by Michelle Henley