Shadowing Dr Kate & Danielle at work in the Okavango Delta this week has been an incredible insight into the work of elephant research scientists. Early starts, long, hot, very bumpy drives around seemingly featureless landscape in search of elephants!
We weren’t sure what to expect… one elephant, two elephants; in fact load’s of elephants. A typical day starts early with a quick cup of tea at about 5.30-6am, then it’s off on the road in search of elephants. The day to day research is mapping the movement of elephants, identifying individual animals and collecting poo samples to be analysed later.
The data is collected by driving through the bush keeping a close watch for elephants. When we spotted one, we would stop and record their position, photograph them and draw their ears looking for distinctive markings. We would also note the animal’s condition and the presence of temporal secretions (from a gland in the side of the head). Each elephant’s ears develop a unique series of rips, folds and markings which makes it possible to identify individual animals.
This seemed pretty easy to do in theory but the reality of getting a good look at an elephant’s ear while they are moving through the bush, without getting too close for comfort, is really quite a challenge. Its wasn’t too difficult with one or two animals but when faced with a herd of about 30 yesterday, all moving in different directions, with a huge adult male in musth keeping an eye on us it all became more difficult. When the elephants move off it is possible to collect poo samples from the young male elephants, if we’ve observe them do their business.
It’s not all elephants out here, when we are out and about we stop whenever we see any interesting game, and there’s plenty of it. We have seen lots of giraffes, zebra, hippo, warthogs, kudu and many other small brown gazelle like creatures that I can’t remember the name of and an amazing variety of birds.
Back in camp it’s time to download the pictures and compare the elephants we spotted with Kate’s database of known elephants. (Database is a bit grand; it’s a series of ring binders!). If we had observed a new elephant a new record is created. The poo samples also need dealing with – lucky Danielle. A sample has ethanol added to it this is shaken and left for 24hr-7days, 1ml is then extracted which is dried and sent to a lab in the USA or South Africa for analysis to measure the testosterone and other hormone levels. A further sample is mixed with formalin to preserve any parasites it has and is then sent to a lab in Bristol, UK, where the parasite activity is measured.
After an afternoon on the computer the team are ready to head back out on the elephant trail at about 5pm staying out until dusk, we have found some great spots for sundowners on our way home including a large baobab which fell over. It has been almost dark when we have got back to camp, so we have dinner and a quick game of Bananagrams and it’s off to bed. I’m looking forward to a holiday!
It’s been a real privilege to see Kate and Danielle at work and to spend so much time up close and personal with the elephants. We’ve certainly learnt a lot!
Kate and Bruce