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Elephants on the Move

05 January 2007

On Thursday 7 December two vets, Dr Danny Govender and Dr Peter Buss from KNP Veterinary Wildlife Services and pilot Hennie de Waal, left Skukuza to fit collars to seven bull elephants. It was an early 4h30 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 Rest Camp and between the Shingwedzi and the Letaba Rivers. This is an area bordering the Limpopo National Park where the largest section of the fence has been removed. Individual mature (over 35 years) bulls were selected on the basis of their shoulder height, estimated at over 3m 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 Makhadzispruit. These collars record elephant movements and subsequent information can be plotted on a map to see the distances the 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 an elephant was selected from the air, it was darted with tranquilizer, after which it took between six and seven minutes for the elephant to be immobilized. Once the elephant was anaesthetized, routine blood samples were taken for the bio-bank and the collar was fitted, bolted securely together. As no ground-crew was necessary with this capture operation, the vets had to work quickly. They devised a special hook to help guide the collar under the sedated elephant’s neck as an 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. The project is interested in seeing if 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 fences are no longer hindering 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. Previous research has shown that a well-known collared elephant bull called Mac moved huge distances while in musth and the same could be possible for some of the newly collared bulls. So the process of watching where the elephants move to begins and it will certainly provide a greater insight into the places they choose to visit.