Try stuffing a large, steaming lump of elephant dung into a minute glass test tube… Not quite what I’d expected when I was invited to spend a day in the field with the research team from Elephants Alive. By Harriet Nimmo

For 20 years, the inspirational Elephants Alive organisation has been monitoring the social structure and movements of one of southern Africa’s largest continuous elephant populations. They have collared more than 60 elephants in over 100 collaring operations throughout the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, and have developed an individual elephant identification database of nearly 2,000 elephants in the Greater Kruger National Park area.

Their long-term research is providing fundamental information for elephant management and protection to SANParks, other conservation bodies and landowners. Some of the issues covered by the research are seasonal movements, sustainability of trophy hunting and impact on vegetation. Sadly, Elephants Alive is now also identifying poaching hotspots.

Elephants Alive research-Collecting dung sample-Harriet Nimmo

Dung samples are preserved in saline, and the tubes taken back to the UK for analysis by one of Elephants Alive’s collaborators, Dr Hannah Mumby from Cambridge University. One can just imagine the customs officer asking, “Anything to declare?” on arrival at Heathrow! Pictures by Harriet Nimmo

We know much less about male elephants than females, yet males could be more at risk from being involved in human-elephant conflicts such as crop raiding. Big bulls are, of course, top of the trophy hunters’ hit list and so Elephants Alive has always focused its research around the mapping of male elephant movements and their social interactions via the long-term ID database.

Recently, the Bull Elephant Network Project, under the guidance of Dr Hannah Mumby from Cambridge University, has been taking recordings of bulls’ vocal communications in an effort to understand the genetic relatedness between bulls. I was thrilled when I was invited to join researchers Jessica Wilmot and Ronnie Makuleke on one of their field trips.

Tracking and studying ellies

Our day starts at dawn with Ronnie and Jess homing in on an individual collared elephant using a special Google tracking link developed by Save the Elephants. The subject for the day is Classic, a bull elephant in his prime.

Elephants Alive research-Collared bull Classic-Harriet Nimmo

Our mission: locating Classic, a majestic 40-year old bull instantly identifiable with his broken right tusk.

Elephants Alive research-Ronnie Makukule of Elephants Alive tracking ellie-Harriet Nimmo

Thanks to the latest technology, we can be deep in the African bush and yet pick up a signal on an iPad, showing approximately where Classic is. Once homed in on the area, Ronnie uses a radio telemetry aerial to precisely locate the bull.

Elephants Alive research-Bulls at the water hole-Harriet Nimmo

And coming round a corner, there he is, hanging out with four of his mates. There’s much jostling, jousting, splashing, mud bathing, tree rubbing and trunk tussling before each bull wanders off in his own direction. With these incredible sentient creatures, it would be wonderful to know what is really going on, what is being said, and who is related to who.

We find Classic and four other elephants at a waterhole, where they are interacting and vocalising. Jess and Ronnie sit silently, holding a microphone aloft, recording the rumbles and noting the associated behaviours, so we can try and understand their ‘language’. Sometimes an elephant will come and investigate the researchers – obviously trying to understand what we’re up to whilst we’re studying them…

Photos are taken of all the associating animals to add to the ever-so-important database. Dung samples are collected and carefully labelled for each individual elephant, to work out the genetic relatedness of these bulls and the levels of stress hormones. Yet another level of fascinating information to add to our understanding of the bull society.

Thanks to Elephants Alive and their research projects, we are beginning to get an insight into the sophisticated communications and social structures of these complex and magnificent pachyderms. Most importantly, we can apply this understanding of their lives and behaviour to help African elephant conservation.


Understanding Elephants_cover image

An elephant sighting is something special but do you know how to safely view these majestic creatures? A new book, Understanding Elephants, written by a team of wildlife specialists from the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, explains elephant behaviour and warning signs of possible confrontation. These guidelines will shed light on how to respect elephants’ space to better enjoy sightings of these incredible giants.

Want to win one of five copies of Understanding Elephants, courtesy of Struik Nature? Email the answer to the question below to [email protected] (subject line: Understanding Elephants) before 18 June 2017. Remember to include your full names, postal address and contact details. Wild will randomly select the winners. Winners will be notified via email.

Question: What is the name of the 40-year-old bull mentioned in this article?

Winners: Michelle Sewell, Carien Kotze, Ingrid Passier, Dennis Kuun, Richard Michael Rose