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BLOG May 22, 2012

Collaring an Elephant - A rare veterinary opportunity!

On Monday 7th May, the students volunteering with the Shimongwe Wildlife Veterinary Experience had the amazing opportunity to participate in darting and collaring a female elephant. Darting an animal of this size is a rare occurrence and quite an undertaking, so anyone going to all this effort must have a pretty good reason for it, right? The team definitely did, and their background story to darting “Leila” gives a great insight into the complex world of conservation in Africa.

“The Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (GMTFCA) covers approximately 30,0000 ha and is situated in the Central Limpopo River Valley. It is also home to about 1,237 elephants, according to a survey in 2012. As border fences have been removed recently in order to form the GMTFCA, elephants can move freely south into South Africa from Botswana and Zimbabwe. This resulted into an increase in human-wildlife conflicts with private owners, as their fences got damaged and the habitat destroyed due to confinement, and an elephant management plan for the area is been put in place to help mitigate the conflict.

The central focus of this elephant management plan is to find out how to respond to the growing numbers of elephants, which means different aspects of elephant population dynamics are needed to be looked at such as: ‘What determines elephant home ranges and their movements? How do environmental factors influence their population structures and dictate their movements and vice versa?

Different ongoing research projects are tackling different questions to cover as many aspects as possible in order to contribute and form together an efficient elephant management plan.

Bundox Wildside, situated in the Mapungubwe Private Nature Reserve, a 28,000 ha reserve part of the GMTFCA, is involved with one of the research projects. This project’s main objective is to investigate how the limitation of resources influences herd dynamics mainly concerning splitting and merging of herds as this is a common observation but no one knows why. ‘Why do they split? Where does the split group go? When do they split? What are their stress levels like? Does it explain part of their destructive behaviour?

To be able to answer these questions, a specific herd must be targeted to begin with. In order to follow a herd, a satellite collar must be placed on one of the adult females. This requires a team of experts put together by Bundox and its volunteers’ help.

Learning to dart with a wildlife vet

So this is how the team went about it: First a large herd of elephants of more than 50 individuals was spotted by the helicopter team. The dart containing the tranquilizer was shot from the helicopter by Mr. Leif Rahmqvist, proud owner of the reserve, targeting one of the adult females. As soon as the elephant was down, the ground team got to work under the supervision of the wildlife vet, Dr. Dewalt Keet, monitoring her vitals. The collar was applied and necessary data was collected efficiently and successfully in no time as the elephant was down for only 20 min.

Fitting a radio collar for an elephant

Monitoring an anaesthetised elephant

In research articles this elephant will be known as Vhembe 1, but to all of us she will be known as Leila, which was chosen by the reserve’s owner. Leila will be monitored closely for the following 3 years at least. She will contribute to the bigger picture as are the two other collared elephants ranging in the whole GMTFCA today. There are plans to collar more elephants as this information is of utmost importance for the protection and survival of one of the last free roaming population of these magnificent giants in Africa.”

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