Shadowing Dr. Kate

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!

Elephants feeding on a dead baobab

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!

Kate, Kate and Danielle enjoying a drink on the baobabYoga Pose on the baobab

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

The Storm

A few days ago as I was out looking for elephants, the sky became increasingly darker and the wind came out of nowhere in every direction. I happen to be in a very open dry floodplain and decided to get out of the vehicle to watch the first big thunderstorm come into the delta. I could hear the thunder getting closer  and within minutes huge bolts of lightning flew down from the clouds like the root of a tree and split in different directions lighting up the dark grey sky right above my head. It was one of the coolest and most beautiful light display I have seen. There were no animals in sight except for a large owl sitting on one of the branches trying to grasp tightly. The wind was blowing so hard that it was lifting up the sand and shooting it across the floodplain right into my face. When the rain started to pour, I jumped into the vehicle and headed back to camp. Surprisingly the rain came and went quickly and it seemed to have taken the elephants with it , because since then we have seen only a few elephants around camp.

one of the young males we saw!We headed out to the Western side of Seba that was now accesible by vehicle and instantly we found elephants. The first 5 sightings we had were of lone 10 year old male elephants! We normally see young males who have left the breeding herd , but this many in the first 30 minutes was very unexpected. The west side of Seba was completely different in that it was very lush, green, wet and open. We ended our journey at Hippo Pools where we watched 20 hippos fighting, playing and chasing one another around in a huge water hole as the sun went down. Since the rain it has been very dry and hot, so we are anticipating a constant rain which should be starting sometime this month!

 

 

 

 

By: Danielle Spitzer

The Uncollaring of Mafunyane

Here is a photo of Mafunyane when he was first collared!
After the successful release and uncollaring of our last two elephants Nandipa and Thando, we have just uncollared Mafunyane, who we have been following through his radio collar for 8 years!  When we release elephants from the Captive herd , we fit them with this collar, so that we can keep a close eye on their daily movements. This is both interesting for our research and also useful in case he runs into and trouble or danger. A few days ago a group of us including 3 researchers, a vet and pilot; headed off into the chopper with our telemetry in hand and searched the wide open spaces of the now half flooded Okavango Delta in search of Mafunyane. I sat on the outer seat with one of my legs propped out of the chopper since there was little room and the doors were taken off. I felt so vulnerable as we were hundreds of feet up in the air and I had half of my body leaning outside the chopper. I was so paranoyed at one point that I would fall out that I taped my seatbelt buckle together extra tight.

 Earlier that day , we got a gps reading of his exact whereabouts. When we flew to that area we could no pick his signal up at first. We flew around in circles as his signal came and went again and again. On our way back to camp to get another GPS resading we came across a patch of bloody grass down below. The pilot and others said that it was poachers. As we flew in closer to the dead animal, we could see that it was a buffalo and that he had been skinned and stripped bare of his flesh. I couldnt believe how much blood was there. We believed that they poachers heard the chopper and took off into one of the nearest islands with there meat, weapons and donkeys. The only thing they managed to leave behind was a plastic bag and a pool of blood and skin from the buffalo. We flew over one of the closest island to search for the poachers, but since they are professionals we knew they were hiding very well. The only thing we could do at this point was call the Botswana Defence Force for further investigation. When we got back to camp, we downloaded another GPS reading and headed back to the chopper to try again.

On the second trip out, it only took us 5 minutes until we found Mafunyane on a small island with a younger male. We circled this island 10 times trying to draw him out from underneath the trees so that the vet could get a clear shot. When we had him in a good location the pilot flew the chopper down over his body and the shot was fired. We then flew away and circled nearby , waiting for the tranquilizer to kick in. Each time we flew in,  we could see Mafuyanes movements get slower and slower until he finally knelt down and slept.

Quickly we landed nearby and went in to get some important measurements and pictures. It was quite strange the way he landed and made it difficult for us to get measurements. I quickly measured the length and circumference of each tusk as was sitting  up almost awake looking breathing very slowly in and out. Within a matter of seconds we were told to clear the area , as the vet gave Mafunyane another shot to wake him up. Quickly he stood up and we were off in the chopper. Job well done!

 

By Danielle Spitzer

The B Herd

Yesterday evening around 5:30, Mphoeng and I had a beautiful sighting of one of our well known female breeding herds named the B herd. All of the females within this group have a name that starts with a B. At first the herd was far away and we werent sure if we were going to get a good sighting and see each individual elephant, but within 20 minutes the herd headed straight towards and around our vehicle. We were pleased to see how sucessful this herd was doing , led by their matriarchBotho and her newborn Bridgette.  Normally the matriarch does not permit us to get close to her herd, but she was very calm. We counted a total of 22 elephants including one big bull who was in musth. This big bull who was over 36 years of age was new to the area and we gave him a new number. We couldnt believe how many young calves were in this herd! There were babies everywhere including two newborns. One of our familiar females Botho just had her first baby and we fell in love at first sight when seeing it. As the sun was going down the herd surrounded our vehicle and peacefully ate.

36+ Male

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Danielle Spitzer

An afternoon with the Abu herd

 

 

 

I got to spend a whole afternoon following the Abu captive herd in the wild! We collected a lot of valuable dung samples from them to help us in our studies of understanding how hormones influence behavior.

 

 

 

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It seems that the elephants are more interested in studying us ! This is Ketimetsi sniffing our vehicle

 

 

 

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Little Lorato even came up and sniffed inside the vehicle just like his mother did. Its amazing to be this close to elephants

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Danielle Spitzer

Happy Independence Day!

Yesterday we celebrated Botswanas Independence Day in camp.  Each year the country celebrates its independence from Britian and this year marked the 45th anniversary of peace and independence. The mood here was electric, with lots of activities going on!

By Danielle Spitzer

Young at Heart

Here is a look from this week !

 

I had a blast spending some time with the Abu herd collecting samples. You can see here they were quite intent on their mud bath, It was very hot that day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of our Mammal Road Survey, we unexpectantly drove up to a small male herd of Roan antelope, which is extremely rare to see in the wild!

 

 

 

 

 

 

While we were sitting in the vehicle watching the elephants, Cathy decided to say hello to Mphoeng, just a little too close for comfort!

 

 

 

 

 

 

On one of the hotest days I have experienced here in the Delta, we pulled up to a big male playing around in the water wrestling with two younger males. This was one of the sweetest things I have seen and it was quite entertaining to watch. The older male was acting like a kid again….young at heart!

 

 

 

 

By: Danielle Spitzer

Mthondo

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I have finally arrived back into the bush after my break, which I spent back in my hometown of Alabama. When I arrived here , I was surprised at how dry the vegetation looked and noticed that most of the water has dried out. It was nice to see everyone again and especially get back out to see some elephants. I wasnt  expecting Mthondo to still be in this area, but it looks like he is enjoying his time here. Each morning and evening the EFA team goes out tracking for Mthondo , so that we make sure the captive elephants do not run into him. Mthondo whom lived with the captive herd for years should not come into contact with these elephants, because we would like to keep him as wild as possible and if he meets up with the herd, his actions could be unpredictable. He is truly a beautiful and nearly perfect example of a big bull elephant.

By Danielle Spitzer

Some Familiar Faces

This past week here in the delta has been very exciting!

We have seen two male elephants whom we have not seen in a long time……..

Mthondo: one of the elephants we released back into the wild is in the area for a week now and seems to be enjoying a particular island which is very difficult for us to get to with a vehicle. We havent seen Mthondo here since February and are happy to see he is doing good and came back to the area to visit

Mthondo

 

William Wallace hasnt been seen for years! we couldnt believe our eyes yesterday when we saw him again. He looked just a big and magnificent as he did before. This time though he was in Musth so we had to keep a safe distance, but we did manage to collect 2 dung samples which was really great. You cant really tell from this picture but he has a bad open wound on his trunk, from where he probably got into a fight with another male

William Wallace

 

By Danielle Spitzer

Smithsonian Wildlife Course

I had a rare opportunity to attend a prestigious course that was offered by the Smithsonian Institute in America. The course was held in Botswana and focused on species monitoring and conservation 1: Large carnivores, ungulates and grassland vegetation. I learned a great deal from the seasoned conservationists specializing in these different aspects. The most important part to this course was the chance it gave the young conservationists within the Southern African Development Community to network and get a feel for what others are doing in different countries. There was a pool of ecologists there from the government and non-Governmental Organizations and junior university lecturers.  

Conservation can no longer afford to be done in isolation within countries. There needs to be collaboration of the institutions within the countries and the regional institution at most international stakeholders. Communities are the key role player in conservation; the ideals of exclusion of communities from conservation have not done any good to the preservation of ecosystems. Local communities are treated as aliens and are not allowed any access to the parks resulting in resentment. People instantly regard animals as belonging to the government. Reduction of human elephant-conflict should involve local communities realizing the benefit of wildlife through incentives. Consequently people will gradually move away from treating domestic animals as their only valuables and see the importance in the protection and preservation of all species.

By Mphoeng Ofithile