By Luke Andrews
Researching these amazing animals in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia
Despite their size, elephants are surprisingly elusive. This is a challenge for a conservation team working in a Zambian National Park near Victoria Falls. They are trying to estimate the number of elephants that cross the Zambezi river into this area during the dry season. The location of sightings is also being recorded in order to generate maps of elephant ‘highways’ in the park.
The African Lion Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) began the project in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia, because there were no reliable estimates of elephant numbers. The previous figure was 31 individuals, according to the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZWA). It was reached by flying a plane over the Park once and counting the number of elephants sighted.
“This is not the correct number”, said Dabwisa, an ALERT researcher.
“Elephants move through this area all the time in the dry season. Also, it is possible that some calves hid under their mothers and some other elephants hid under trees when the plane flew over”.
The ALERT team is using regular game drives and elephant identification techniques to produce its estimate. Their current figure is over 450 individuals.
The team drives around the National Park searching for these evasive animals. They are masters of camouflage and silent movement. There have been several occasions where ALERT has stopped, thinking they had seen just one elephant, to find over 50 nearby.
Once spotted, the animal is photographed and the GPS location recorded. Later, the photos are used to identify the individual. This is done through observing deformities and particular characteristics.
As elephants trample through the bush, their large ears get torn on sharp branches. This results in distinctive notches and cut marks on their ears which can be used for identification. Each elephant also has different tusks which can also be used to distinguish individuals.
The GPS location of the sighting is also mapped using Google Maps. This is allowing ALERT to understand, with some confidence, where the elephant ‘highways’ are. The knowledge may be used to mitigate human – elephant conflict.
I volunteered with this team to help find, identify, and map elephants.
Spotting the animals immediately proved challenging. There were many wrong sightings.
“You’ll fit right in here Luke”, said Sara Bylin, Project Manager, after I had misidentified zebras as elephants.
“They were far away and we were moving”, I said sheepishly.
Termite mounds, bushes, clumps of grass, and warthogs have all been misidentified as elephants. The team gets regular laughs from these mistakes.
Despite these setbacks, genuine elephants are also sighted. We were completely unprepared for my first one.
Bumping along in the Land Rover there was a sudden trumpeting sound. Whipping round I saw a massive elephant right next to the road. It was rearing back, trunk in the air, ears flapping.
A volunteer next to me yelled “oh mama!” whilst another began to “hyper-ventilate”. Sara slammed on the breaks and went into reverse.
The animal had been concealed in a nearby bush, evidently as unprepared for us as we were.
We shot back a safe distance before grabbing our cameras. We needed to get good photos for identification, and also note down the elephant’s herd type, time of sighting and GPS location.
Getting the GPS involves three different instruments. A compass, a GPS device, and a distance measurer. The team wants to get the elephants location rather than the vehicles. First the GPS location of the Land Rover is taken, then the distance of the elephant from this site and angle using North as 0* is recorded. This will allow the elephants actual GPS location to be estimated.
Later we identified this trumpeting individual. The first step here is choosing the correct file. There are two; based on herd type. A ‘Bachelors’ file for adult males and a ‘Breeding Herd’ file for mothers, juveniles and calves.
This individual was an adult male, so we opened that file. Observations of his ears and tusks were made and then compared with the known individuals. This individual was identified as M0042, or ‘Raffie’.
Through using this method ALERT has established a reliable estimate for how many elephants move through the park. Their estimate of over 450 individuals puts a whole new perspective on the population when compared to ZWA’s 31. They have also established where some elephant ‘highways’ are located. In the future, these results may be used to mitigate human – elephant conflict.
Photo Credit: African Lion Environmental Research Trust. The photo is of M0042 or ‘Raffie’.