Up close and personal: collaring elephants in northwestern Namibia

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Africa » Namibia
November 3rd 2007
Published: November 3rd 2007
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Before I write further, a huge THANK YOU to all my long-suffering UK-based friends and relations who generously put their hands in their pockets to raise funds for an elephant collar at extremely short notice in response to nothing more personal than a couple of round-robin emails. And a big THANK YOU too to those who took the trouble to write and - completely unnecessarily - explain why you would not be contributing.

For much of this year, I had known that Keith Leggett, the lead scientist in the northwestern Namibian desert-dwelling elephant project, with whom I have been working on and off for much of the last fifteen months, wanted to collar elephants again in October this year. He has had global-positioning satellite (GPS) collars on elephants in this area since 2002 in order to track their movements, analyse migration routes and assist in dealing with human/animal conflict. Key to this process is being able to collect data over many years, but GPS collars’ batteries only last for two years or so. In addition, technology in this field is galloping along apace and the new GPS units are smaller, more efficient and collect additional data on the elephant and its surroundings. When I was given the chance of attending the collaring as an observer, I jumped at the chance. One of the potential funders had pulled out at the last minute so, together with a couple of Keith’s friends, I offered to find the funds to sponsor the now-unfunded collars . I therefore arrived in Namibia with a scary amount of cash in my money belt and thrilled at the prospect of going on a collaring exercise.

Collaring animals is fascinating, but, of course, not without its attendant dangers, both to the target animal and to humans in the vicinity. The associated adrenalin rush is infectious, as well as exhilarating. But key to the whole exercise is the collaring team: the combination of talents and personalities and their ability to work together effectively and efficiently. It swiftly became clear that Keith had put together an excellent and experienced team who have worked together in the past, and who could therefore now anticipate each other’s needs and roles seamlessly. For the three sponsors on the trip, it was a privilege to see these guys in action and to do what we could to assist without, critically, getting in the way.

The trip was not without its hiccups, and, at one point, events outside our control seemed to be conspiring against us. A fire at a South African processing plant meant that AvGas and Jet A1, fuel for the fixed wing aircraft and helicopter needed for the collaring, were in desperately short supply in Namibia and had to be specifically sourced and brought north from Windhoek to Hobatere Game Reserve. A technical problem with the collars themselves, together with “adverse” weather downing all Johannesburg-Windhoek flights for a day and the inevitable Customs formalities delayed the collars’ arrival in Namibia for a nail-biting two days. One of the vehicles had repeated tyre problems; two others had engine problems. The fixed wing aircraft suffered a major electrical failure and required a spare part that was impossible to source in the timeframe. As if that were not enough, we were threatened with an early start to the rainy season which could jeopardise the entire operation.

Wearing my second hat - project research assistant - I set off with a trailer of aviation fuel and one of the other observers on Monday 22nd October. At that point, we still didn’t know when the collars would arrive, but we’d decided to hit the road so as to be safely in place when the collaring could start in earnest. Our intended destination, after dropping the fuel off at Hobatere Game Reserve (elephants in the Hoanib would be darted from the ground) was the Obias river campsite near the Hoanib itself, but, thanks to problems with one of the other vehicles we were forced to exchange the waterless Obias campsite for the luxury of the campsite at Wilderness Safaris’ Palmwag Lodge…. complete with bar and swimming pool. Still, we struggled through the rest of the day as best we could and consoled ourselves that evening with a cheerful braai with the vet, HO, and one of the Wilderness wildlife managers, Richard.

Next morning, we met up with the other two sponsors and their guides (aka Keith’s friends, Mike and Andy). In convoy with HO and one of the officials from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET technically oversees Keith’s project and we were to have a succession of officials observing the collaring), we set off, only two days’ late, for the Hoanib. News from Outjo, the operation’s HQ, as it were, was better: the collars were now in Namibia and zapping up from Windhoek as quickly as their manufacturer, Diets, could persuade a 30 year old Hilux to go. Fingers crossed, everyone should make the Hoanib that evening….

Not wanting to waste our time in the Hoanib, we divided into two vehicles that afternoon and went looking for our target animals: WKM-10 who was due to receive his third collar in recognition of his standing as Africa’s furthest moving elephant on record, covering approximately 650 km a year; WKM-14 who due to have his collar removed (on the grounds that he was boring - well, his movements were predictable and very limited; his collar would be more use on another animal); and WKM-20, a young bull whom Keith only sees a couple of months a year, so it was hoped that collaring him would reveal where he goes in the interim. Bingo. HO and I found the new guy less than ten kilometres downriver; Mike and Andy found the two already-collared animals within a similar distance upriver. This looked WAY to good to be true…. but elephants can move an impressive distance overnight, so we kept our

..his recently-eaten breakfast of Salvadore persica staining his mouth
fingers crossed for the next morning.

That evening, with much sighing of relief, the remaining vehicles, people and collars appeared. The atmosphere was festive, everyone hugely relieved to be finally about to begin the operation and psyched up for the work ahead. There were still a few underlying nerves amongst the professionals: the risks inherent in any collaring operation to one side, this was going to be the first time this generation of collars would be put into the field…

We were a mixed bunch of people. Keith was, of course, in charge of the whole operation; the other key professionals for the collaring included HO (the vet), Diets (the brains behind the GPS collar technology) and Tristan (a professional hunter). In Hobatere, a more difficult environment in which to work, Tristan would be joined by a second hunter, Marco. The other two sponsors were Lynne, who had never before spent a night under canvas but who threw herself into camping life with a vengeance, and Jen, who had never been to Africa before. WHAT a way to be introduced to the continent! We also had a team nurse, Issy, on standby in case any of humans needed medical attention. Sundry bruises and scrapes, as well as a bee sting and a dodgy stomach, ensured that her medical kit was well exercised.

The next day began early, coffee and rusks fuelling the morning’s activities. When the first collars were prepared, the darting team scrambled into the back of Keith’s bakkie and the rest of us squashed into two vehicles that would stay well back until HO gave the all-clear. Would our animals be as conveniently located as they had been the night before?

Actually, even more so, as we were soon to discover.

Only a few hundred yards upstream we found WKM-14 quietly munching under a shady tree. Keith took the bakkie closer for HO to aim…. and within minutes, we in the observing vehicles heard over the radio the first of the reports that would become familiar in the next few days: “Dart’s in”. The young bull lurched off up the river bank and into the bushes. Keith followed cautiously behind. We waited in the riverbed. Less than ten minutes’ later, “He’s down”, triggering the frantic activity required to complete all work on the animal in the shortest possible timeframe. Elephants can remain lying down without adverse effect for up to six hours, but no-one wanted the animal down for longer than absolutely necessary. We in the other two vehicles drove quickly along Keith’s tracks, and parked at either side of the downed elephant. This would provide a little further protection for the team working on the animal, in the unlikely event that we were surprised by other elephants. Generally, elephants are not particularly interested in a darted male: even if he has been hanging out with another male, that male will scarper on hearing the dart gun. It’s each man for himself in the elephant world! But darting females is very different: the rest of the herd will gather round the downed animal protectively, making collaring females a somewhat more challenging activity…

Each collaring worked, essentially, the same way. HO would move in to take blood and tissue samples, check the animal’s state of health, administer any medication that might be necessary - such as antibiotics for infections - and monitor his condition during the entire operation. He would also be the last person at the animal, administering the antidote as soon as Keith had cleared everyone else away and back into
WKM-20 coming roundWKM-20 coming roundWKM-20 coming round

...and consoling himself with a dust-bath
their vehicles. If the animal was already collared, the existing collar would be sawn off and/or the new one put on. Putting a collar onto an elephant is a delicate procedure as the collar has to be fitted to the animal, the battery pack connected to the GPS wiring and screwed onto the collar. The battery unit then acts, effectively, as a balancing counterweight to the GPS unit which sits behind the elephant’s ears. In addition, Keith would oversee the biophysical examination of the animal whereby key measurements and tail and tusk samples would be taken. Then “Everyone, back to the vehicles!”, an instruction which you disobeyed at your peril. After administering the antidote, HO would walk nonchalantly back to the bakkie, and all three vehicles would reverse a good distance back from the still-prone animal, and wait for the elephant to come round.

In compensation for our earlier delays, both of the other two target animals in the Hoanib seemed almost to be lining up for us. After completing WKM-14, we found WKM-20 further upstream but, as he was in the company of the somewhat bolshie WKM-13, we let him be until later. As I’ve said, males usually do a runner when their buddy is darted, but we wanted to take no chances with WKM-13 so close by. Instead, we left the two bulls to continue on their way down to the waterhole.

On our way back downstream, we found WKM-10. This was to be his third successive collar, and he knew the ropes. After being darted, he wandered off nonchalantly up the river bank and found the only tree for several dozen yards around. We found him lying perfectly within its shade: the consummate professional! He received the first of the new collars, and the entire operation could not have gone more smoothly. As the sponsor of his new collar, I was given the sawn off end of the collar’s webbing, a great memento once I got each of the team to sign it. Only a few minutes after the antidote was given, and WKM-10 was lazily back on his feet, seemingly unconcerned about the change in his neckwear and the entire experience. We saw him later that day, contentedly munching in the shade of a faidherbia, the epitome of a laid back elephant.

That afternoon, we re-located WKM-20. He was still hanging out with
some of the breeding herdsome of the breeding herdsome of the breeding herd

approaching from upriver
WKM-13, but we didn’t have the luxury of any more time to wait for the two to separate. HO aimed for the young bull, the other vehicles well back and wary of what the older animal might do. Contrary to our fears, WKM-13 played his part well, lolloping off as soon as he heard the dart gun, but WKM-20 was new to this game, and didn’t yet know the rules. He headed off into thick bush, and towards an approaching herd. We scrambled up a kopje to see what was happening. After a few minutes, the darted animal fell, landing correctly on one side. However, the breeding herd were a little close for comfort, and Tristan went off in his bakkie to ensure that the herd was kept back from where the collaring team were working. A bit of excited trumpeting in the distance added to the adrenaline rush, but we were with very experienced people. WKM-20 could acquire his new fashion accessory quickly and safely.

We rewarded ourselves for our hard day’s work with a leisurely hour or so on top of a nearby hill, watching the elephants below. WKM-20 had wandered off after checking out his new
more of the breeding herdmore of the breeding herdmore of the breeding herd

...previous antsy-ness apparently forgotten
accoutrement and giving himself a dust bath, leaving us with the eleven members of the extended breeding herd. It was magical to see the second half of the breeding herd approach, slowly strolling down the river in the glorious light of a late African afternoon. Those members of the breeding herd that had caused us a moment or two’s consternation emerged from the bushes downriver, apparently unaffected by the recent excitement, and we could enjoy the timeless sight of a group of elephants, from the youngest calf to the old matriarch, meandering from bush to bush in the quest for contributions towards their required daily intake of 250kg of vegetation.

In Hobatere Game Reserve, we had the added excitement of a helicopter to help us with the remaining collarings: Jockel and his Bell Jet Ranger joined us. Hobatere’s 35,000 hectares cover hilly, rocky ground and, because of that and restrictions against driving off-road, it is far harder to locate and dart animals from the ground. Keith tends to prefer to use fixed wing aircraft to locate the elephants as it is an infinitely cheaper form of transport, even if he then has to rely on a helicopter flying in

...nonchalant after the change in collar
low to allow HO to dart the animal. However, we were not to be allowed the choice this time, thanks to technical hiccups with the aircraft. It was to be Jockel and the Bell Ranger alone.

One of the pluses of being a sponsor, even if we couldn’t help with the collaring itself, was that we could each take turns flying with Jockel and HO while they located and identified the target animals, and HO used the dart gun. If it was a slightly stomach-churning but fascinating experience seeing Hobatere from the air and watching the animals from this new perspective, it was even more impressive to watch Jockel’s flying from the ground. He’s a very experienced game capture pilot, and he expertly used his craft to herd the darted animal into the open, to a place where the vehicles could approach and for Jockel himself land.

If we’d been appreciative of the animals’ compliance in the Hoanib, we were dumbstruck by their Hobatere relations. While we were not allowed the luxury of darting elephants from the Lodge’s swimming pool (as has been done in the past when target animals kindly strolled close-by at the appropriate time), in one day, we collared, de-collared and re-collared no fewer than five animals.

That simply left the elephants of the Omusati. For them, Keith elected to take simply the core collaring team as the thornveld in this northern area is too thick and unforgiving for vehicles to approach; the collaring would take place from the helicopter alone. The rest of us could enjoy a day or so of luxury around the Lodge’s pool and the waterholes of Hobatere….

…but the Omusati elephants didn’t play by the rules. After several hours’ searching by helicopter on the Saturday night and Sunday morning, the team had only found two males to collar. It was therefore decided that the final collar would go to another Hobatere bull, assuming a suitable candidate could be identified. Back in Hobatere, we were elated: the week would finish with a collaring which we could all watch. Sure enough, late Sunday afternoon, we located a potential bull. Jockel and HO flew in, the animal was darted and, the operation ever more slick, successfully collared. The end-of-collaring party could begin in earnest!

It had been the most incredible week, and I truly felt privileged to have been a part of it. To see such magnificent animals in such close proximity in their own environment; to hear the rumbling snore of an elephant while it is asleep on the ground, oblivious to all around it; to be able to examine the texture of an elephant’s skin, its feet, its trunk; to be able help Keith and HO as they worked on the animal… words fail me. Trite the phrase may be, but it had been the experience of a lifetime.

Additional photos below
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3rd November 2007

Hi Thanks for sharing a beautiful experience. It made me glad that I am Namibian and that my country can offer so much so our visitors. Oneword
4th November 2007

Thanks! I endorse your comments Elizabeth. Words are not enough are they to convey the tremendous experience we had.?! Take care and good luck. May life's adventures stimulate us all dailyx Jen
7th November 2007

What an experience!
Elizabeth, thanks as always for bringing the continent to those of us back home. You really have a gift for bringing the experience to life - I felt as though I were there with you, feeling the texture of the elephant's skin and the adrenaline coursing. You must write a travel series! I hope your many adventures continue, and we're looking forward to seeing you when you make your way to the US!
7th November 2007

Excellent write-up!
Dear Elizabeth - what fun to read your well-written account of the collaring. I almost felt like I was with you guys! I could really feel your adrenaline pumping all the way over here. Warm hugs, Rhonda
23rd November 2007

Aussie connection
Hello Liz Love your account of the collaring. Not many pictures of you in there though? i'm so very jealous of your exploits and look forward to reading more. As usual your writing style and content provide an entertaining and educational outlook on the subject at hand. Stay safe. Phil

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