Among the Elephants Blog
January 31, 2001
Save the Elephants
January 2001 Between the 23rd - 26th January, The team consisted of myself, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Dr. Job Githaiga an ex-Kenya Wildlife Service vet who has been involved in most of our collaring operations over the last 3 years, Drs. Juliet King and Job Githaiga Henrik Rasmussen our acting field officer in Samburu, David Daballen and Sammy Lemantampash the STE Samburu research assistants, rangers from Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves and several other Samburu volunteers.
Six elephants were collared in this recent operation, 3 males and 3 females. As is always the case in wildlife research, every animal and collaring operation was different with the unexpected often happening. A collaring operation is a tense event at the best of times, the elephant's welfare is at the forefront of all our minds and the sooner it can be revived the better. Whilst the vet monitors the anaesthetized elephant and rangers watch out for danger from approaching elephants the rest of the team fix the collar, take samples and various measurements in the quickest possible time.
Although each operation is meticulously planned and co-coordinated, more often than not it requires split-second decisions and constant changes in line with what is happening with the elephants, adrenaline levels pumping all the time. A case in point was the arrival on the scene of an enormous 5-ton musth bull, 'Pilate', just as the anaesthetic was taking effect on the female we had darted. Pilate was intent on testing all the females who were guarding their drowsy matriarch, to see if any were in oestrus and would be receptive to mating, and it seemed as though nothing would deter him.
As he approached, our vehicle was sent to head him off but he seemed to interpret this as if we were competing with him for the females. He appeared to lift his shoulders and raise his head higher, approaching the vehicle with a slow motion swaying of his head, trunk lifted over one of his tusks, completely undeterred from his path. He had an overpowering smell due to his musth condition that added to his intimidating demeanor. As we drove about 5m in front of him blocking his path he began to get irritated, shook his vast head, lifted one front foot and scratched at the ground, warning us to back off.
By this stage the darted female had gone down and it was vital that the collaring team and vet get to her as quickly as possible, but Pilate was all of 20 m away from her and still approaching. He had had enough of this irritating object in his way that seemed to be testing his strength, a plaintive call came over the radio from the lead vehicle "don't annoy him, just keep him away". Easier said than done! He came straight to the vehicle and nudged it, which would have been alright except there were 2 rangers in the back of the open pickup, desperately trying to hide.
We sat still in the vehicle, transfixed by this enormous elephant standing a meter away from us, expecting anything. As Pilate moved in, his tusks now over the back of the car, one of the rangers found a small piece of metal and in desperation hit one of the tusks above his head, apparently shocked by such rudeness Pilate shook his head and backed away from the vehicle. My heart was in my mouth, but his moving away gave some space for the collaring team to drive in and push the females and calves away from the sleeping elephant. Whilst the team worked as quickly as possible to fix the collar around her neck, 2 vehicles kept Pilate and the other females away.
Eventually he lost interest and moved off with a slow-swaying gait in search of other females that might prove less trouble. The whole operation from the time the dart went in, our encounter with Pilate, to reviving the elephant with her newly fitted collar took only half an hour; I cannot imagine a more eventful 30 minutes. Dr. Juliet KingScientific Executive Officer Notes from Samburuby Martin MeredithJanuary 2001Waiting for Lewis to defecate took nearly two hours. Dozing in the midday heat, he seemed to be in no hurry. Yet the rewards of waiting were significant. For these days the humble bolus can unlock many secrets.Moving swiftly to the steaming pile, Samburu's resident biologist, Henrik Rasmussen, delved into it to select a choice morsel.
The morsel was now destined for a remarkable journey. Pressed gently into a vial along with chemical fluids, it was transferred to the refrigerator at camp headquarters, finding a place alongside those other essential ingredients prized by field biologists, M 99 and cold beer. From Samburu, it will eventually be flown to a laboratory in Europe for tests that will reveal some of Lewis's most intimate details. For by examining fragments from the bolus, modern science can now determine an elephant's DNA heritage as well as measure its testosterone levels and stress hormones. So, all in all, an interesting time for Lewis, a 50 year-old bull well-known to Samburu's researchers.
But there was more. Coming into musth, Lewis attached himself the next day to Goya family, and, after fending off a number of other suitors, succeeded in mating with her ten-year old daughter. Researchers have found that Samburu's bulls tend to be a well-mannered bunch when it comes to competing for female favors. Since 1997, only one fight between bulls has been observed there, suggesting a much lower level of aggression than that reported from Amboseli and Kruger. One reason may be that Samburu's elephants have more opportunity to move to other areas if need be and to try their luck there. In a recent paper written by Henrik Rasmussen, he observed that Samburu's bulls have four options when faced with competition for females.
They can either give way to their opponents, but stay in the same area and adopt a lower ranking; or move to another, less attractive area in the hope of succeeding as a high-ranker in that area; or defer sexual activity to another, less favorable time; or fight it out. Because Samburu's elephants are able to move in and out of the reserve at will, they have more options than populations in more restricted areas. Less dominant bulls can give way to the highest-ranking bulls without losing hope for the future, making life more peaceful for all concerned.
Judging by Lewis's performance the other day, his lineage is well-secured. · Martin Meredith, author of a forthcoming history: The African Elephant: Nature's Great Masterpiece, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, in September 2001 and by Public Affairs, New York. Mike Fay, Elephant Biologist from Congo working with the World Conservation Society, recently visited Save the Elephants' field station in Samburu and accompanied us on one of our collaring operations. West meets East over Ansel the Elephant by Mike Fay, WCS.23 January 2001Over the years my meetings with Iain Douglas-Hamilton have always been short, intense and when I think about it usually death-defying.Life has been fast enough in the past few weeks.
I had arrived on the Atlantic coast only on the 18th of Dec. in about the only place left on the continent where elephants, hippos, gorillas and tons of other wildlife pour out on the beach. This little place is called Petit Louango in the country of Gabon and was the terminus of my 3000 km, 15 month walk across the forests of central Africa. After a quick visit to the US I found myself high above the rift valley dive-bombing into Naivasha with Iain at the controls of his 185. We circled tight over a pod of hippos in the lake and the carcass of an unfortunate member of this group who become hippo chops. Here I was again visiting with Oria and this time Iain´s mother at their little piece of Kenya.
No sooner had we downed a lunch of wonderful red beet soup and fresh ravioli than we were airborne again bound for Samburu to take a look at Iain´s elephants. We have been using GPS collars provided by Save The Elephants in northern Congo for a few years so I could use this as an excuse to run around with Iain for a few days to add to my Kenya experience which only ever amounts to dribs and drabs over the past decade or so, all due to the good graces of Iain. He put me right to work spotting elephants from the air, preparing collars and today as stand in media man for the first collaring exercise of the new year. There was the usual frenzy of preparations in the morning, collars and batteries to be checked, software to decipher, M99 and target practice.
I am always impressed by the teams Iain puts together. This one was a mixed bag of aspiring European researchers, an ex-KWS veterinarian, Samburu assistants who know some 850 elephants, slews of game guards with AKs and G3s, and bums like me. It was a military operation, land sea and air all communicating with our Motorolas and finding our way with on board GPS. Iain spotted Ansel from the plane about 8 km down the Ewaso Ngiro River and we set off on the north side of the river with two trucks and the dart gun. Once on the ground Iain and his team went along the south bank to assist if the old Ansel decided to take a swim on drugs.
We approached slowly and pretended like it was just like any other day of note-taking. Ansel probably only had faint memories of last Feb when he was last darted by the same team of folks. He slipped right up close and wham a perfect shot to his left hind quarter, we could see the bright day glow orange plumes of the dart hanging there. He only bolted about 20 meters and kind of smelled his old collar like he drew some association between this sudden pain and this thing hanging from his neck. He advanced and then got a glimpse of the dart still hanging back there on his rump and ran, obviously now disturbed. Turns out old Ansel, even though he showed no signs of musth had been mounting a female when he was spotted from the air and the dart in his butt only seemed he heighten his arousal.
There were other young males around waiting for a shot at this lady so he was trying to stay close. Apparently when you run around the adrenalin keeps the M99 from setting in right away and he was going to try and stay with his girl as long as he could. Finally though after about 20 minutes we could see him start to sway and kind of back up and Iain called the fall from the opposite side of the river. He was down. Being the media man for the day I was now riding 60 km an hour over the floodplain up top of this giant bucking bronco. My knees took a beating as did Iain´s camera but we arrived at old Ansel snoring away as if he was taking a mid day siesta.
The team jumped to action, Iain was crossing the river. We had seen them feeding 17 giant Nile crocodiles only a few kilometers upstream the night before but Iain showed up with his bare feet. I felt like I was at the pit stop of the Ferrari team in Monte Carlo. Before I could get the camera in place the old collar was removed, there was a thermometer up Ansel´s bum, hair samples were taken, his neck girth measured and the new collar fitted. The antidote was injected and under watch of his fair ladies Ansel quickly made it to his feet and was off much faster than me in the morning before I've had my coffee.
The females didn't come close, they didn't try to defend him, they were just watching, seemingly fascinated. As we left the parade started again, the band of males was off chasing the lass and we headed off not to camp but back to the plane. Iain still wanted to find another elephant, after all we still had an hour of light. We climbed to 10000 ft and headed about 70 km upstream this time and found Winston, the man we hadn't located the day before. He was also in a group of females and young, like Ansel and deep in a canyon. I thought how amazing this work was. Only a few years ago, before Iain started this work people really had little idea how far all these guys were going.
It is obvious that they really do occupy a huge range, elephants with little chance of survival if they were ever confined to the Samburu Reserve. On the way back Iain flew at about 20 ft off the river sometimes more or less with wings vertical. Guess he just had to get death-defying into this latest visit. After seeing this beautiful country again and inevitably wondering out loud with Iain about a long walk in this part of the world, I thought why not the Red Sea to the coast of Mozambique. Family of elephants by the river. Elephants remain in danger of poaching despite increased security and efforts to ban ivory trade. STE Research Centre in Samburu Mungu, the largest bull elephant in Samburu was collared during the January 2001 operation Henrik recently returned from Denmark and Sammy looking out for elephant during the January 2001 collaring operation.
Juliet and Henrik taking a break from the collaring exercise with Kenyatta looking on in the background. Iain Douglas-Hamilton (left) and Martin Meredith at the Samburu airstrip in January 2001. Martin Meredith's book The African Elephant: Nature's Greatest Masterpiece is due out in September 2001. Beginning from the back left are David Daballen, Sammy Lemantampash, Henrik Rasmussen and Mike Fay at the Buffalo Springs airstrip. Ansel, the elephant in Mark Fay's field report.