Batoka, the oldest orphan bull elephant within the Release Herd in Kafue National Park (KNP) made a guest appearance on the outskirts of the Release Facility last week.
Batoka has been considered ‘wild’ since February 2020, when he left the companionship of the orphan herd and started spending his time amongst wild elephants, mostly about 20km from the camp, near Lake Itezhi Tezhi. We have been tracking Batoka’s wild antics using his GPS satellite collar, however, the battery failed on the collar in the peak of the rainy season. Due to the lush vegetation and inaccessible areas, getting a visual of Batoka became impossible. We had been waiting for the ground to dry and the vegetation to reduce before we could safely embark on a re-collaring mission in the wild for him. As luck would have it, Batoka returned to the camp to socialise with the herd who has been his family for the past 12 years.
His reunion with the herd was very special to witness. Timothy Hammond, Release Facility Manager said “It was amazing watching him stride up to the herd for the first meeting with tons of confidence”. Batoka, now 13 years old, is the largest and oldest male elephant to be part of the orphan herd. He is a year younger than herd Matriarch, Chamilandu, who helped him settle into the herd and has been his close ally for many years. However, he is now much bigger than her (male African Elephants grow quicker and larger than females) and after all this time away, interestingly, Chamilandu’s immediate response to Batoka was submission.
“She was very alert at the start, ears up, back tense. Then, as he moved towards Mutaanzi she submitted by turning her rear to him and backing towards him (a greater sign of submission). Chamma ordinarily submits to no one, although after Mutaanzi was born she became cautious of Batoka as he was pretty aggressive towards her calf.” comments Lisa Olivier, Conservation Behaviour Advisor, who has been monitoring the intricate behaviours of the orphans for the past 7 years.
The other orphans who were brave enough also came up close to physically greet Batoka, all showing the appropriate signs of respect that he deserves within this herd hierarchy. As usual he focused his attentions on Tafika and two separated from the herd and moved off into the thickets neighbouring the camp.
Since Batoka left in February 2020 he has visited the orphan herd on only three occasions. Each visit lasted an hour or so before he left the immediate release area in the company of Tafika, who returned sometime after. We couldn’t miss this opportunity to re-collar him in a safe environment. Collaring elephants in or around the Release Facility gives a level of security in terms of resources and accessible manpower available to assist with a collaring procedure. Deeper into the Park a collaring would be riskier at this time of year where there are still inaccessible areas, water pools and lots of long grass making it hard to locate an elephant once darted.
Our Vet Unit was dispatched from Lusaka as soon as Batoka’s reappearance was notified. Supported by the DNPW Vet for KNP, Dr Chadzaantso Phiri, the team arrived to KNP the same evening. At first light, the following morning, we began tracking Batoka using the GPS location for Tafika’s collar and the VHF radio component to hone in on their location, assuming and hoping that the two friends may still be together. Tafika was located in a thicket, which was inaccessible and unsafe for darting. As the team returned to camp, and the orphan herd left for their daily walk, they were astounded to see Batoka show up in an open plain alongside the camp! It was perfect conditions for darting and the team, led by GRI Vet Dr Darlington Kafula, quickly and efficiently darted Batoka with a sedative. He responded by moving away from the camp and took 10 minutes to succumb to the drugs, but was followed by the team on foot and with a drone to ensure his position.
The experienced team ensured he was in a safe position whilst unconscious. They efficiently monitored vitals, took biological samples and measurements whilst removing the old collar and replacing it with the new. Within 20 minutes the antidote was administered and Batoka was back on his feet a few minutes later.
Batoka quickly resumed foraging and moved off away from the visual range of the Release Facility. Now with his new collar functioning we receive a GPS location every 1 hour, so are able to closely track his movements around-the-clock. Since it was fitted, we have observed that he has remained in close proximity to his surrogate sibling Tafika. The two adolescent bulls have been moving around the immediate Release Area together within a 3km radius of the camp. They have not joined up with the other orphans during their daily walks, preferring to remain independent. This is a great sign of Batoka’s continued independence from the herd and the Facility and will encourage Tafika to take the next step, spending more time in the wild where they both belong.
With huge thanks to the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife for their partnership and dedication to this long-term elephant release programme, and the long-term partners who have continued to support us along this special journey in particular: the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, the Olsen Animal Trust, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who have provided technical development of our research capabilities.