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How do we identify individual elephants?

There are currently twelve orphaned elephants at the Kafue Release Facility. Each elephant has specific needs for their individualised rehabilitation program to ensure that they are given the best possible chance of being successfully released back into the wild. Therefore, it is critical that keepers and researchers are able to distinguish between them. For a newcomer to the Wildlife Rescue team this may appear to be a daunting task, as on first glance all of the elephants simply look like, well, elephants. However, after closer examination and several hours spent observing the elephants, distinct characteristics and behaviours become apparent and help to differentiate the elephants from one another.

In order to categorise the elephants there are a few key features which the Wildlife Rescue staff look for, including gender and size. There are 10 males and 2 females within the Release Herd, therefore recognising the sex of an individual helps to quickly categorise them. Apart from the differences in genitalia, gender can also be determined by a few other features. For example, female elephants have very angled foreheads creating almost a 90-degree angle, while male elephants have gently sloping foreheads.

The elephants can also be grouped by their relative sizes. There are 4 smaller elephants, 5 medium sized elephants, and 3 large elephants. The three largest elephants are considered stage 4 Release Phase Elephants, meaning they spend greater than 50% of their time away from the herd. Because of this, they are satellite radio collared in order to monitor their movements away from the herd. These collars can be used as a distinguishing feature to identify them.

Many of the elephants have unique features such as ear folds or tears, tusk size and orientation, and distinguishing marks or scars. Upon rescue, most orphans are extremely malnourished which may cause the tops of their ears to curl forward. Even after receiving care and treatment from their keepers, not all elephants' ears fully recover. At the Release Facility we see this with two of the orphans: Mosi, who has both ears curled, and Mphamvu, who’s right ear is curled over.

Some of the other elephants within the herd have tears along the edges of their ears, which are likely to be a result of moving through thorny thickets when they were still very young and with their original herds. Muchichili has several triangle-shaped tears in the edges of both of his ears while Mulisani has a small circular notch on the edge of his right ear.

Tusk size and orientation also help to differentiate between individuals. Tusk size can also be used to group the elephants, pairing this with orientation can help to recognise a specific individual. For example, Musolole has medium sized tusks relative to his surrogate siblings, which are splayed very outwardly.

Other unique features can also be used to identify individuals. For instance, Maramba has a kink in his tail and Nkala has a bump along his stomach from a hernia in his youth.

In addition to specific characteristics, the behaviour of the elephants can also assist in identifying the individuals. Many of the elephants form close bonds with particular member of their surrogate herd, and frequently interact with them. Chamilandu and Rufunsa, are one such pair, who have become inseparable on the bush walks. Batoka and Tafika are also frequently found together and enjoy sparring on the morning walk, while, Kavalamanja and Mphamvu can often be seen sleep standing next to one another during lunch times within the protective boma. The special friendships and behavioural trends depicted by the elephants also help to identify individuals.

Once these identification clues are observed and recognised, suddenly every member of the herd is clearly identifiable!


Images: Mags Rozali, Mishka Malinowski