As part of my Masters of Environment, I chose to do a 37.5 point Environmental Research Topic and somehow managed to score myself the wonderful opportunity of basing my research in Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, northern Kenya. I found willing co-supervisors in Dr. Graeme Coulson from the zoology department at Melbourne University, and Dr. Lucy King who is part of the research team from Save the Elephants in Kenya. For those unfamiliar with elephant circles, Save the Elephants (or STE) is a research-based, elephant conservation NGO operating primarily from a research camp located in the heart of Samburu National Reserve. It was founded by Iain Douglas-Hamilton (who is THE elephant expert) and has a team of dedicated researchers committed to ensuring the longevity of this majestic species and the ecosystems it inhabits. This generates invaluable information, and on-ground action, not only for Kenyan populations but elephant range countries worldwide.
For the previous four years Lucy, along with Dr. Joseph Soltis (head of Disney Animal Kingdoms animal vocalization team) have been conducting sound experiments, where known elephant families within the reserves are exposed to audio playback of threat sounds to investigate their responses. The main purpose of these experiments is to compliment Lucy King’s innovative idea of constructing fences made of beehives to deter elephants from croplands. Samburu and Buffalo Springs are unfenced reserves and surrounding human populations are increasingly encroaching on traditional elephant migration routes with expanding fields of crops. Elephants trample or consume crops as they traverse from one home range to another, farmers retaliate and thus the problem of human-elephant conflict escalates. Bee hive fences are thought to be an affordable and relatively simple technique to deter elephants, as they are quite fearful of the aggressive African honey bee. The sound experiments investigate how elephants respond to the sound of disturbed honey bees, and also to the sounds of rumbles individual elephants produce as a warning signal to other individuals in the herd when in the presence of bees. This helps to assess how susceptible the bee hive fence technique may be to habituation and how readily the elephants learn to avoid contact with hives
Delving further into Lucy’s study we developed the research idea for my Master’s thesis: ‘Responses of elephant calves to audio playback of threat stimuli in Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, northern Kenya’. The idea is to investigate social learning in elephant families, and to determine if elephant calves learn appropriate responses to threats by emulating older female elephants in the herd, and if so, at what stage of development they begin to display these responses independently. The elephant population in Samburu and Buffalo Springs N.R. is unique in that it has been so comprehensively researched by the Save the Elephants team, that over 1000 individual elephants from around 60 families are recognizable using documented identification files. This has enabled me to age the calves in my study population with extremely high accuracy and to get a real idea of their behaviors at different stages of development.
The research for my project has involved a combination of field work and video analysis. For the first four weeks in Samburu, I acted as Lucy and Joseph’s research assistant on their latest sound experiments, from which data was also generated for my specific project. Every day we would spend about five hours driving around the reserves, looking for elephant families resting under the doum palms or umbrella trees lining the (completely dry) riverbed. When a suitable elephant family was located we would set up the speaker system and recording equipment, and play the family one of three sound stimuli. The days were long and hot – I spent a lot of time perched atop the research vehicle hanging on for my life as we bumped along the dusty roads of the reserves – but it did not for a second feel like work to me. It was more akin to being on safari every day. In addition to my specific study subject, the reserves are home to an abundance of fascinating species including Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, oryx, dik diks, kudu, gazelle, impala, wild dogs, spotted hyena, leopard, lion and a wide diversity of birds.
The second element of my research is video analysis of trials both from this year’s field experimentation and footage recorded since 2007. This is a long process, requiring a focus and attention to detail I didn’t know I was capable of. For each video of a trial I identify which calves belong to which adult females. I then watch the video over and over again recording movements and specific behaviors for each elephant, and the exact second at which such actions occur. So far, I think I have spent almost 100 hours watching videos! For the most part, I enjoy it. And the further I get into it the more interesting little things I am discovering. And when it all gets too much for my attention span, I just have to look up from my desk to find a wildlife surprise. Kudu feeding outside my window, vervet monkeys peering curiously at me as though I am a zoo animal, or the resident mongoose, squirrels, hornbills or klipspringers looking for a tasty morsel.
To keep things interesting when living in the field, it’s not uncommon for the bull elephants (particular Yaegar, a solid bull known for knocking down trees) to visit the camp at night, feeding on trees and farting their musical compositions outside the tent. I’ve also had leopards walk behind me as I study at night in the open research hut, and a most unwelcome scorpion take up residence in my shoe. There’s definitely never a dull moment here in Samburu.
While I will be very sad to leave the research camp and return to Melbourne, this project has further inspired and motivated me to keep pursuing my (at times seemingly crazy) dream of a career in wildlife conservation in Africa. What I endeavor to do after completing this project is to return to Kenya for a much lengthier PhD study. For such a well known and intelligent species, surprisingly little research has specifically focused on elephant calves – which in a way is great news for me!
For more information about the diversity and depth of Save the Elephants conservation research and development projects visit the website