We first spotted Charlie from about 700 foot up over the arid Mozambique savannah and it was love at fist sight… A majestic African elephant bull, approaching his prime with strikingly handsome tusks.
After three futile days of searching by vehicle on rocky, red sand roads and a further day from the air, we were more than delighted to spot Charlie, and our skilled Robinson R66 pilot Jacques Saayman wasted no time in his approach. Suddenly the desolate charm of Parque Nacional de Limpopo (PNL) (in Mozambique adjoining the Kruger National Park) came alive. We dropped to a hover at about 30 feet and Charlie acknowledged our presence by flapping his ears and shaking his head in alarm, the expedition vet, Dr. Carlos Lopez Periera of National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC) quickly darted Charlie with a strong morphine derivative, which rapidly induces a comatose state for up to 20 minutes.
Charlie staggered for a moment and then gently dropped to the ground. The team rushed to perform the vital task of collaring this handsome fellow. All hands were on Charlie as we maneuvered the 10kg collar into place, bolting the counter weight closed to the last set of holes gave an indication of his massive size. The collar was cut, clamped down and carefully bolted at record speed then the edges filed down to ensure a comfortable wear. Samples of tail hair, toenail, dung and blood were collected and carefully placed into the cool transporting kit. In 14 minutes our time with Charlie was up, Carlos injected him with a reversal drug, we gave Charlie one last close look and rushed to the waiting helicopter. We took to the air and hovered low waiting for Charlie to wake up and within minutes he started rocking himself onto all fours again.
Charlie got up and ambled off, hardly noticing his new accessory. We on the other hand, certainly did notice his GPS and felt a sense of relief and pride. This collaring project will provide the team with desperately needed information via satellite about the movement of elephants in and around PNL. The recent census for Mozambique reveals a rapid population decline of 53% in 5 years and an estimate of only 1254 elephants for the PNL ecosystem, we need to act now or the criminal gangs located in and around the park will decimate them entirely.
Charlie is the first of 40 elephants planned to be collared in Limpopo National Park, thanks to the support of a joint project executed by Elephants Alive and funded by Conservation Action Trust and Save the Elephants. The Peace Parks Foundation provides technical advice to the managers of PNL, as well as ranger training and antipoaching intelligence, overseeing allocation of donor grant funds to do so. We managed to collar five elephants in total on our first trip, two bulls and three cows, all of varying ages. Most of them spotted in the south southwest region of the PNL
This project is extremely important to the survival of this keystone species within the PNL and the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. History has come a full circle as the elephants in Mozambique first repopulated the Kruger population after excessive hunting had removed most of the pachyderms more than a century ago. At present the low PNL elephant population will have to depend on their numbers being bolstered by those coming from the Kruger National Park. Our team was disheartened with the low levels of elephants we sighted in Mozambique despite our intensive search efforts. The lack of fresh elephant tracks or dung piles over large stretches of land to the north of the Park as well as the near nocturnal habits and clumping together in large groups of the remaining gentle giants, is reason for concern.
We have already started monitoring Charlie’s movements along with the other four, with anticipation as to how we can use the tracks of these elephant-intelligence-agents to improve the security of their kin. The collars have a two-three year life span after which time we hope to replace them. Tracking their movements over an extended period “gives us an elephant’s perspective of what’s going on” says Michelle Henley from Elephants Alive and “maps the ‘fear’ landscapes which they are now forced to navigate”. This is vital information for security measures in this time of crisis for LNP.
It was magical to meet you Charlie. We wish you many tracks in the dry sandy veld of PNL while you help us to help you and your friends.