At the end of April, the team from the Kafue Release Facility had a successful morning re-collaring Mosi and Musolole (Muso) whose GPS collars had expired. This was good timing as recently Mosi decided to stay outside the boma, overnight, with Chamilandu before returning. With his imminent next step of going back into the wild, the replacement collar became a priority.
Game Rangers International's aim is to ensure all rescued orphaned elephants return to the wild. Due to their traumatic past, and being brought up in a managed environment, it is important to track their behaviour once back in the wild. This allows us to gain crucial information about not only their well-being, but also their progress. This monitoring enables us to continually improve our operations and determine the success of the entire rehabilitation process.
The collars provide our research team with valuable data such as:
Survival and welfare: the primary function of the collars is to ensure released elephants are surviving in the wild. They also enable us to physically track released elephants via vehicle and carry out observations, including monitoring their overall body condition, signs of injury or any abnormal behaviours.
Feeding behaviours: the feeding preferences of released elephants can be compared with wild elephants of the same age/sex class to see if they are demonstrating “normal” feeding patterns. By looking at their utilisation of resources, we are able to make informed decisions on how best to manage the release area.
Movement behaviours: monitoring movements enables us to establish home ranges, habitat use and selection to demonstrate whether they are using the environment effectively and similarly to wild elephants in the area. Understanding environmental utilisation can also give insight into behaviour that is beneficial for effective management and conservation of the species (Wato et al., 2018).
Activity patterns: by building up a record of the activity patterns of released elephants, we can compare these to wild elephants. Additionally, we can build up an understanding of ‘release milestones’ during this process. This will enable us to compare future released elephants against these expected milestones. This may reveal some ‘early warning’ signs if an orphan isn’t demonstrating similar activities and behaviours.
Social integration: collars enable us to track and conduct real-time observations of released elephants and wild elephants. If they are able to interact with wild elephants successfully, create bonds and maintain relationships, it is encouraging that the existing rehabilitation programme does enable a suitable environment for them to learn the social skills that are critical for success in the wild.
Human avoidance: released elephants can face the same issues that wild elephants face, especially Human Elephant Conflict and poaching. The collars have functions which we can proactively use for management. Geofences, or ‘virtual’ fences, can be created using GPS positions surrounding community areas. If an elephant crosses this, alerts are sent to relevant parties within GRI’s Resource Protection Programme to enable proactive conflict mitigation. Additionally, a “streaking” alert function notifies us when there is a sudden increase in elephant movements suggesting a threat, such as poachers. Again, this information is shared with relevant parties. Not only does this help with the security of the orphans themselves but also the wild populations that they are likely moving with.
Collaring is a vital milestone in the release process of the orphans, for their own benefit and for all future releases. It quickly allows the team to identify any potential risks in their movement away from the immediate release area and provides us with crucial information to evidence the best possible transition and successful reintegration back into the wild, where they belong.
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