Testing times

Kelly Landen
22 February 2008

Category: Elephants


Mike examines the torn-off collar from a previous tracking expedition

Photograph: Kelly Landen

Working on a research project with wildlife tests one’s patience and optimism. Once again we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. We are not receiving a satellite signal from Kgosi’s collar. When we try to get his current position, the only reply we receive is ‘no data available’. If the hindrance is only for a day or two and the signal somehow bleeps back on, we usually don’t think too much of it because it could be something as simple as Kgosi hiding under the shade of thick trees, which could easily block the transmission, or that he has enjoyed a very cooling mud bath and has caked his satellite unit. Both of these circumstances can be quite common during the rainy green season. But it has been more than just a few days. Of course, we don’t want to panic over the situation; we are trying to stay calm and think of all the possible scenarios as to why we cannot pick the signal up. An obvious cause for collar failure could be that the unit has simply stopped, but we have had this happen to us twice before when it wasn’t a simple scenario.
The first time, we took note of the last transmitted signal and, realising that the waypoint was fairly close to a road, Mike and I headed out in search of the elephant, or at least its collar. We programmed and followed our GPS unit, turning off the road into the bush tracking as far as our vehicle could go. When we stopped, we found ourselves in a group of small, abandoned buildings in a desolate field, which looked to have been demolished by grenades, in Namibia along the Angolan border. We knew that the area had been inhabited by soldiers during the Angolan unrest, and when Mike noticed a small sign alerting to possible land mine areas we became a bit anxious and began to think the worst for our missing elephant. But still we trudged on, walking in each other’s footsteps, careful of each step, until we practically tripped over the collar. We found no signs of the elephant. The collar looked as if it had been ripped off!

The way we secure the collars is with just enough room for growth and movement, but not enough for an elephant to use its trunk to pull it off itself. It wouldn’t have enough leverage. So the only scenario we could surmise was that the bull must have been in some kind of tiff with another, and a tusk may have ripped the collar off his neck. This may be the case with Kgosi, considering we think he is in musth. And an elephant in musth can be quite aggressive and unpredictable towards another bull, as they vie for dominance and the affection of a female.

The second time we completely lost the satellite signal and set out in search for the collar, we found a sad conclusion. Unfortunately, the cow elephant had died of what looked to be natural causes. It was rather difficult to assess the reason because she had been down long enough for the predators and vultures to have done their part. We brought her collar home in tears. Of course, we realise this is the worst-case scenario and we have a strong tendency to be much more optimistic, but we can’t completely rule the thought out. We know that Kgosi is a strong, virile, healthy bull, too. But my worst fear is in knowing that he is in an area that has had a high concentration of reported poaching incidents. If we don’t start receiving a moving signal soon, we will have to fly to try and find him next week.

As for Letsatsi, she and her herd are continuing to roam from one area to the next in the lower regions of Angola, carefully taking precautions by sticking to the well-worn elephant paths between water-filled pans and vegetation, and avoiding the areas along the river in which people have recently established themselves. Considering how intelligent elephants are, we can understand why they choose their paths in hazardous areas, but the question still remains as to how they detect underlying danger. We aren’t quite sure - it may be a combination of their qualities.

Elephants are well known for having powerful memories. Both the temporal lobe, which is associated with memory function, and the hippocampus, associated with emotions, learning and memory, in an elephant’s brain are well developed. Elephants also have keen communication skills, conveying messages over long distances to one another. Considering these facts, perhaps the elephants have experienced, learned, remember or have heard of the dangers in a particular area.

Another fact to consider is that an elephant’s sense of smell is perceptive and acute. Their olfactory capacity is thought to be five times more sensitive than that of a bloodhound dog. Perhaps they can virtually smell the possible danger or pieces of metal carefully buried under the soil. One other consideration relating to senses is that elephants sometimes communicate with infrasound; sound waves that transmit very low, so low that they are inaudible to the human ear. These sound waves can travel long distances, bouncing off the ground, and the elephants can ‘hear’ or actually feel the waves through their feet. Could it be that their feet can detect what they may be about to step on? I’ve also wondered about the magnetic field that a land mine can exude. Many wildlife species migrate by reading the magnetic fields of the earth’s surface to guide them. Could elephants feel the same magnetism? If so, could this characteristic create a sensitivity to mine fields?

The answer as to how the elephants know this danger is not quite clear and it may be a combination of these qualities and abilities that help guide them. Obviously, the answers would be quite difficult to prove, but perhaps this is something that needs to be looked into in much more detail.

Originally written: 22 February 2008

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