Elephant Collaring Exercise To Help Monitor Blind Elephant

Another elephant has been fitted with a GPS-cellphone collar in the Association of Private Nature Reserves (APNR) adjoining the Kruger National Park (KNP), bringing the total number of elephants being monitored through such devices by Save the Elephants to 11.When vet Dr Cobus Raath described the young male elephant in his sights on June 22, 2006 to elephant researcher Dr Michelle Henley, she was delighted because she immediately recognised Striburus.

Striburus is a member of a herd of elephants known to Michelle as the 'grass herd', in which all the members of the herd are named after grass species. Michelle knows the individual identity of hundreds of elephants in APNR as she has been studying them day in and day out since 2002.

When she had the opportunity to collar Striburus she jumped at the chance, because knowing Striburus's location would fulfil two objectives - she would be able to keep tabs on a young male elephant on the verge of leaving his family herd to become a wandering adolescent, and she would be able to keep in closer contact with a blind elephant cow known as Eragrostis.

Michelle has long wanted to keep a closer eye on Eragrostis, but never wanted to subject her herd to the stress of a collaring event. By putting a cellphone collar on Striburus, she will indirectly keep in contact with the grass herd. Michelle estimates that Eragrostis is about 60 years old, and suspects that her blindness is caused by cataracts.

Michelle says, "She uses her trunk like a walking stick and follows roads but when it is wet she cannot use smell and you can see that she is blind." Michelle goes on to relate how Eragrostis has walked into the research vehicle in the past, and has previously walked in circles around a waterhole in wet weather."

"Her daughter Themeda often waits for her" and helps Eragrostis. On the same day that Striburus was fitted with a collar, an elephant known as Diney had her old satellite collar removed and a replacement GPS-cellphone collar was fitted. Diney was first collared in May 2004, when cellphone collars were not as common.

While both satellite and cellphone collars take GPS readings, the GPS points are sent via SMS with a cellphone collar and via an orbiting satellite with a GPS-satellite collar, making satellite collars far more expensive to operate.

However, satellite collars can be used in areas where there is no cellphone reception, and so one of Michelle's first elephants collared, known as Mac, has kept his satellite collar as he frequently spends a lot of time out of cellphone range.

The collaring of Striburus and Diney was filmed by an Italian film crew who are making a documentary on green hunting and needed footage of an elephant collar being fitted. The two cellphone collars fitted were funded through donations provided by Marlene McCay, who has been an important benefactor of the Save the Elephants research in South Africa.

Also in June this year the adult male elephant known to the researchers as Classic, because of his perfectly formed tusks, was green hunted under the supervision of vet Dr Peter Rogers. During the green hunt Classic's satellite collar was replaced with a cellphone collar funded by a donation from Wessa (Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa).

Classic was first collared at the same time as Diney, and the batteries in his first collar were overdue to run out. Funds from the green hunt will be used to help reserve management in the APNR.

Michelle has two further cellphone collars on order through funds provided by Wessa, who were asked to help direct money left by benefactor Phil Gower towards worthy elephant research projects. Michelle hopes to deploy these collars later in the year to add two more elephants to her research project, whose ultimate aim is to collar a total of 30 elephants, 18 bulls and 12 cows, in order to monitor them for a ten-year period.

This will give information on elephant movements and behaviour in the reserves bordering the Kruger National Park. Through the continuous monitoring of Mac since 2002, Michelle has been able to determine that every year when he comes into musth in early winter he makes an annual trek of hundreds of kilometres from Shingwedzi in Kruger down to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve area, before returning to Shingwedzi at the end of the musth cycle, giving him an enormous home range. The annual service fees for Mac's satellite collar are also currently being sponsored by Wessa.

By Melissa Wray

Kruger National Park - South African Safari