Orphan elephant collaring


Andrew Kirkby, International intern

Date Published

STE’s PhD researcher Shifra Goldenburg has been conducting much of her research on the behaviour of orphaned elephants and their interactions with other members of their family. To add more depth and detail to her study, a few orphans were chosen to be collared to monitor their movements and compare them to each other and other members in their group. Three target individuals were identified, a 12 year old female in the Swahili family, a 13 year old female from the American Indians, and another 13 year old female from the Planets. A KWS vet from Lewa was called and planned to arrive that following weekend.

In the morning of the Saturday we headed over to Buffalo Springs NR to find the orphans. We found the Swahili family in quite a bushy area with fallen trees making it difficult to get the vehicles through since. In addition, the elephants were scattered randomly in the area. We had the KWS Mobile Vet Unit vehicle and two STE Land Cruisers and made a plan of action. The vet went in one of the STE vehicles to find the target orphan, while the other two vehicles waited to follow the animal after it was darted and chase other individuals away. We found the orphan with two other females under a large acacia tree, standing defensively by facing outwards making it difficult to dart the target. Finally, after waiting about 15 minutes, the three individuals started to move. The vet quickly took aim and fired, hitting the target perfectly in the rump. The individual was completely shocked and took off, sounding alarms and causing others to run too. It was difficult to see where the elephant ran to because of the bush. Luckily, the elephant ran straight to the other vehicles and slowed down, finally falling on her brisket. The STE team rushed in and pushed her on her left side while the three other vehicles chased the other elephants away. Everyone leapt into action, putting water on the elephant’s ears and body, the vet monitored the elephant’s status and took a sample of blood, Shifra took tail hair samples and David from STE fitted the collar.

After about 20 min the job was finished and the antidote was injected. The female got up by looking a little bewildered then strolled off, not taking too much notice of the collar.

The next day we set off early again with the same team and drove over to Buffalo Springs. We found both targets with their families around the Ngara Mara Swamp area, out in the open. They were all in perfect location for darting. The first female (Planet’s orphan) was darted by the vet.

The elephant did not react much and walked on until it finally stopped moving and fell down 10 min later. The STE team again came and pushed her on her side while the vehicles chased off other member in the family. The team got busy in the same way as the last collaring, but because of the ideal location there was little stress and George (STEs head of research) even had time to teach others how to age the elephant by feeling and counting the teeth.

The collar fit well and the antidote was administered and the elephant was soon up. After getting up she (the orphan) spent about 5 min feeling the collar, trying to pull it off and shaking its head until it finally walked off towards the rest of her group.

The cars moved to the next target on the other side of the Ngara Mara river. This was the 13 year old female from the American Indians. The vet hit his target and she ran a bit but then slowed to a walk, joining the rest of the family. The elephant finally stopped walking and stood still and very gradually started leaning backwards, trying hard to prevent itself from falling over. Eventually it lost its balance and fell over on its right side.

The team jumped into action, however, this time the bolts on the collar’s counter weight were not long enough to reach through the collar strap for the bolts to screw in. The first thin layer of strap, around where the counter weight was to be screwed in, had to be shaved off with a knife, after which the counter weight was secured.

The antidote injected and two minutes later the elephant got up swiftly. Like the last target, it spent a long time feeling the collar and trying to get it off. At one point the receiver slipped a little to the side, but luckily it went back into place. The elephant started to wander slowly back to its family.

Just as we started to head back to the STE camp we got news of an injured cheetah cub of about one year old that looked like it had a broken leg. We were already in the area and found it in no time. After the vet got his darts, antidote and emergency equipment organised and ready his car slowly snuck up to the young cheetah. It was not too difficult as it had a huge difficulty moving. After he darted it we waited for the drug to slowly take effect. Unlike the elephant darts, this one was not meant to completely sedate it, but to just immobilise it and calm it down which was apparently a safer option for cheetahs. The mother by this time had moved away from the vehicles and was watching from far. The vet eventually got out of the vehicle and threw a towel over the cheetah which he then used to hold it down.

Others came to assist. The vet felt the left back leg which was in a bad way. The femur was broken and had been for some time, it also looked as though the cheetah’s spine was injured. There was not much we could do unless the cheetah was taken to Nairobi, but we had no cage and no one had one in the area. We did not want to wrap it up in a towel since there was a risk of it overheating. Finally someone had the idea to use a mosquito net. One arrived and the cheetah was wrapped up safely, loaded into the vets car which then took it to Lewa Nature Conservancy where the vet had a cage. We heard later that the cheetah arrived safely and was then taken on to Nairobi to get an X-ray. We hope for the best!