Tracking Migrating Elephants in South-Africa

One of the solutions to protect both elephants and local communities from conflict situations is to act in advance by tracking migrating elephants.

This kind of monitoring aspects of the ecology and demography for South Africa’s largest elephant populations is done by Elephants Alive, an organisation, founded in 2003 under its previous title of Save the Elephants.

Dr Michelle Henley is the Co-founder, Director & Principal Researcher for research team of Elephants Alive, with the aim of helping to secure their future on the continent and promote harmony between humans and elephants.

The team tracks elephant movements using advanced GPS and GMS technology in order to understand their movements in relation to habitat use, safety, the social landscape and past management practices.

Elephants Alive is working in the Kruger National Park and in the Association of Private Nature Reserves, adjacent to Kruger, in South Africa – as well as in the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique.

In order to track elephants, they have to collar elephants. Collaring sounds bad but it doesn’t hurt the elephants. Each collar is equipped with a GPS tracking device and fitted specially per individual, weighs around 12kg and reaches 3 to 4 metres in length. The elephant is darted with a morphine derivative from a helicopter to make the process easier while the rest of its herd is driven away so they don’t think their family member is being killed. The darted elephant is only unconscious for about half an hour until an antidote to the tranquiliser is administered. The elephant will recover within a minute and make an orienting call to reunite with its herd in less than an hour. For an average of four to five years the collar’s battery allows researchers to download information revealing movement patterns.

These patterns help them predict where elephants will be, understand social dynamics and diets, and be aware of any poaching attempts. If one of the elephants is severely injured or dies, its GPS locator will remain stationary and alert researchers.

The patterns study has resulted in long term conservation planning. Thanks to the data from the radio collars, elephants can now disperse into adjacent areas since the fences are down that used to isolate the Kruger National Park, and culling to manage elephant population is not needed for the immediate future.

So far, Elephants Alive have collared 72 elephants (in 113 collaring operations), in order to

  • define cross-border movements throughout the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park
  • understand how elephants move in relation to stresses such as hunting, human infrastructure and poaching
  • shed light on how physical barriers (fences, roads, railways) and environmental factors (rivers, artificial water supplies and geological substrate) influence elephant movements
  • inform managers, conservation bodies and landowners on seasonal movement, sustainability of hunting, effects on vegetation where elephants and man co-exist – and sadly now identifying poaching hotspots to inform deployment of anti-poaching patrols
  • understand how elephant mortality rates differ between southern and east African states regarding escalating illegal trade in ivory
  • understand the movements and social importance of the remaining big tusked bulls within the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park