The Recovery of Columbus’ Collar


by Shivani Bhalla, Samburu

Date Published

Columbus was fitted with a Lotek 2000 collar on the 7th of November 2003. He was last seen by the Save the Elephant’s long term monitoring team on the 12th of Dec 2003 in Samburu National Reserve (SNR) – a month after the collar was fitted.

In April 2005 Columbus needed to be located, and his collar replaced with a GSM collar. On the 26th of April, Iain flew around the area to try and pick up a signal for Columbus among other elephants that were targeted for a week long radio-collaring operation. A very strong signal came from Kalama Wildlife Conservancy, North of SNR and it was clear that the fixes for Columbus’ collar were coming from the same position. The elephant had either lost his collar, or was dead.

On the 28th of April, a final aerial survey by Iain and the STE field team was done in Kalama. Whilst confirming the exact GPS location of where the strongest collar signal was coming from, a carcass very close to Columbus’ collar signal was spotted from the air. GPS positions were recorded and Iain landed on an airstrip as close to the area as possible. The STE team then proceeded by car, driving along the Northern boundary of SNR. Upon entering Kalama, the team veered towards the West approaching the area of the collar/carcass location.

After walking for 3km, they closed in on the area of the GPS readings. The carcass was located first, at the Kuenia and was said to be a of a 33 year old male, with its tusks pulled out and missing. Three weeks later, on the 18th May, the STE team returned to the area armed with digging tools. The signal was still loud from below the riverbed and the team began to dig it up. However it soon became apparent from radio-tracking that the signal had the same strength over a 500m radius.

Eventually after fine tuning receiver, the exact location of the signal coming was obtained. It appeared that the signal was being emitted from a termite mound. Trees were torn off the mound and after digging for less than a minute, the belt strapping could be seen and it was swiftly dug out. The collar had been cut cleanly with a sharp object. The data storage compartments were undamaged. The mud staining on the collar suggested that the elephant had died in the rainy season. There was no smell or pieces of rotting flesh, implying that the collar had been removed soon after death, before decomposition. It lay 300ft Southeast of the carcass.

After recovering the collar, the team headed back to the carcass which had been found during the previous trip. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that the skull was unscathed implying that the tusks had not been hacked out, but rather pulled out. To remove large tusks from a 33 year old male so effortlessly without blades, requires the animal to have been dead and decomposing for approximately a week. The evidence suggests that this elephant was not poached for his tusks. It is difficult to determine how the elephant died. The area was fresh with recent signs of abundant livestock herding. Although secluded, the Isiolo-Moyale highway lies 4km away in a straight line from the carcass.

This accessibility may have given any opportunist the possibility to smuggle tusks through the black market. The age of the bull’s carcass and the proximity of the collar to the skull suggest that this was indeed Columbus. However, this will have to be confirmed by analysing the tissue sample collected from the carcass and the tissue sample collected when Columbus was collared. Columbus’ collar has since been downloaded and it appears that the exact date of death was the 11th of April 2004.