As the orphans at the Kafue Release Facility mature, they start to demonstrate signs of wanting to be independent from the orphan herd, especially the bulls. As would be typical in a wild herd, these sub-adults start to show more of an interest in the wild - the odd venture further away and an increased interest in wild elephants. This signals to us that we need to take the next key step in supporting them as they progress further into life in the wild – collaring!
We use high tech satellite and radio telemetry, attached via collars, so that release-age elephants can be tracked real-time via GPS mapping and with visual follow ups where vehicle access is possible. It is essential that we monitor the orphans to understand how they are adapting to the environment, its resources and to wild herds, and to prevent potential human-elephant conflicts. Once they roam freely, they will be fully exposed to all the risks wild elephants face.
Poaching is still a real threat across Africa, so by following these individuals and working with the Rangers who patrol the Park, we will increase the chances of keeping them safe. It also provides us with information to evidence the best possible transition into the wild and a successful release/reintegration. Helping us to answer the critical question - are we preparing the orphans in the best possible way for their life in the wild?
Each collaring operation is carried out with a team of specialists, including members of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) veterinary team, our in-house vet and is often attended by newly qualified local vets for training and capacity building. During the anxious time while the elephants are under anaesthesia, every effort is made to ensure a speedy process with elephants aimed to be roused within 30 mins of sedation. Each elephant has a dedicated team (usually 8 people) responsible for monitoring vitals, collecting samples and of course fitting the all important collar!
The collars are a combination of rubber and seat belt material compressed to be robust enough to put up with the rigours of daily elephant life (such as mud bathing and playing!) yet still soft enough that it does not cause them any discomfort. At a fraction of their body weight, they show very little interest in them after the initial fitting, however the keepers routinely check them for any signs of irritation.
The battery life of the collars vary with usage, but we typically expect a 4 year life. As the orphans are still growing rapidly at this age, growing space is left but it cannot be too loose and risk the elephant getting it caught on trees. This means we usually have to refit the collars once during this period.
Collaring is a vital milestone in the release process of the orphans, with some elephants being collared since 2015. With support from our technical partners, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), we have not only learnt a lot about the orphans, but also the wild elephants that the orphans have associated with. Batoka, the oldest bull, was recently spotted amongst a super herd of 70 wild elephants at the Itezhi Tezhi lake shore! This information is used by our Resource Protection Programme to better protect both wild elephants and the orphans in the release area of Southern Kafue National Park.
Video by Sport Beattie (GRI Founder and CEO)
It is with huge thanks to everyone who support these operations and of course the partners who enable us to implement this technology: Department of National Parks & Wildlife, IFAW, Olsen Animal Trust, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Pro Wildlife & Savannah Tracking.
Contributors: Rachael Murton (GRI Wildlife Rescue Director) & Lisa Olivier (GRI Head of Research)