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Eyes on the Elephants

Post Release Monitoring (PRM) provides us with an understanding of what happens to the orphaned elephants once they have returned to the wild and in order for us to confirm successful releases, we need to get eyes on the elephants to gain insight into how the elephants are coping in their new fully ‘wild’ life.

Since the unexpected departure of seven orphaned elephants from the Release Facility our PRM efforts have intensified to include aerial support and daily research drives. Despite these increased efforts the seven orphans, referred to as ‘Maramba’s Herd’ (as he was the KRF herd leader and almost certainly, the instigator to encourage the herd to leave) have only been seen three times since they left the facility.

The most recent sighting was at the end of April by the Ngoma airstrip, approximately 7km from our camp. Seven elephants, matching the orphan’s description (which is an unusual herd composition, so very easily identifiable), were spotted by National Parks Officers, but they quickly disappeared into the thick forest and our research team could not get a follow-up visual sighting due to the dense bush. It is however reassuring that they have been seen together, in close proximity to the camp and the areas where both Batoka (who has been fully wild since 2020 but moves independently of all other orphans) and Chamilandu’s Herd (four sub-adults and her calf, Mutaanzi, who have been independent for the past year) frequent.

LEFT: A blurred photo taken from our moving plane as Keeper Maison spots four of the seven orphans close to the camp. Kasewe, Mkaliva, Lani and Mulisani were seen mud bathing, the other three had already moved under tree cover upon hearing the plane”

RIGHT: The DSWF and OAT funded Savannah aircraft has the ability to fly at slow speeds and conduct tight orbits, making it the ideal aircraft to provide GRI with eyes in the sky capability.

With the unexpected departure of these orphans, we have revised our PRM strategy and recognise the importance of implementing tracking collars across the entire KRF orphan herd, as despite predictions, we cannot be sure at which point in their rehabilitation the elephants will choose to leave. In our experience, releases have happened very slowly and organically, such as Tafika, who took more than four years to fully release after his initial few nights out in the wild. These seven elephants, and the previous departure of Chipembele into a wild herd at only 3½ years old, further demonstrate the need to be able to monitor the orphans individually to really understand integration and release success.

LEFT: The research team conduct frequent drives within the Release Area in order to identify Maramba’s Herd, amongst the other many elephants encountered

RIGHT: Chamilandu captured on camera in the Park after tracking by VHF, the counterweigh on her satellite collar can be seen hanging below her neck

Maramba and Mphamvu had previously been fitted with satellite collars, but due to technical challenges both had failed. Their new replacement collars have since been implemented on Musolole and Kavalamanja, with Musolole’s previous collar repurposed for Nkala. These are the three oldest elephants remaining at KRF and their age and behaviour suggests they are the most likely of the orphans to take the next step towards release. Their collar fitting went very smoothly with thanks to Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) vet Dr Chadzaantso Phiri who led the collaring operation, whilst opportunistic growth and health data and biological samples were collected by the team.

Whilst Musolole’s collar was replaced, the team quickly gather biological samples and take growth measurements which contribute to our continued learning about the orphans and broader elephant biology

Research Coordinator, Webster Mwaanga, who leads our Post-Release Monitoring efforts commented “Collaring the orphans plays a vital role in our ability to understand release success. The data evidence areas the orphans feel safe, their feeding preferences and indicates wild elephant integration. It also plays an important role in their security as well as that of the wider wild population, informing law enforcement planning.”

LEFT: After heading to the GPS location indicated, Webster uses a VHF tracker to get much closer visual range of collared elephants

RIGHT: Satellite collars send GPS locations of the elephant’s position, and this is relayed to the team via the EarthRanger platform showing a map of the Park

However, satellite collars are expensive. Their manufacture, implementation, maintenance, monitoring and removal, must all be factored into the budget. With thanks to generous donors at IFAW and Indiana University we have now been able to increase the number of satellite collars we can implement to include all the release phase orphans from arrival into KRF, however we still need to find additional funds to increase our PRM capabilities, in particular, to those released elephants who are un-collared. Camera trap technology can be a useful PRM tool and provides a non-invasive, non-impact method to remote monitor the orphan’s activity, giving us eyes on the elephants. The limitation is their small range, so an increased number of traps are required to provide good coverage, but in areas we know the orphans frequent they can provide us with meaningful insights into their wild existence, their health and condition and social interactions with wild elephants.

LEFT: Camera traps play an important role in giving us eyes on the elephants once they have left the Release Facility.

RIGHT: Camera trap photo showing Tafika sparring with and dominating a wild bull elephant – this kind of photographic evidence provides vital information about the orphans integration amongst wild elephants, which is a key factor in determining release success

It is important to understand how the elephants are coping with their new life in the wild as well as increase our understanding of the success of different routes to release (i.e., elephants leaving at different ages and stages), which will inform our management practices and protocols with the aim to maximise the orphan's best chances for life back in the wild.

From a welfare perspective, PRM is a vital part of releasing the orphans as it enables us to keep tabs on these individuals who we have cared for and raised over many years, and who are now tentatively taking their first steps back into the wild. It’s an incredible journey to be part of and what parent wouldn’t want to put a tracker on their newly departed teenagers!?! said Rachael Murton.

Game Rangers International Research would not be possible without the support of our partners, International Fund for Animal Welfare, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Olsen Animal Trust, Indiana University and Department of National Parks and Wildlife.

We still need to increase the number of traps we deploy to provide good coverage in the immediate release area and increase our chances of getting Eyes on the Elephants – You can help us by clicking here to donate.

· $15 could provide an SD memory card

· $30 could provide 8 rechargeable batteries to power a camera trap

· $200 could provide a high spec robust camera trap with video and Infrared illumination

Select "Eyes on the Elephants" to direct your donation to GRI Research.


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