Thanks to the ecology manager’s keenness to allow me to participate in other reserve activities and projects, I had an opportunity of a lifetime – I got to help radio collar six wild bull elephants!!!! After a few set backs with bad weather and the chopper not being able to make it a few weeks back, we finally were ready to go!! The elephant monitor here, Leo, and veterinarian flew in the chopper with the pilot, Fera (I am sure that is spelled wrong) and the rest of us (ecology team, rangers, WildlifeACT and volunteers) made up the ground crew.
We set out ahead of the chopper to wait at our first general area location – near the hide to dart two bull elephants that represent the southern section of the reserve. The helicopter quickly caught up to us and we watched as it circled the skies in search of the eles. The chopper dove just above the tree tops and then would rise again, each time my heart would skip a beat waiting for the call on the radio that an elephant had been darted. Twenty minutes ticked by, feeling like forever, when a loud burst of static screeched through the radio and then Leo’s voice giving directions of where the ele was darted. I road on the back of the bakkie with others on benches and we all grabbed the metal roll bars as the ecology manager threw the truck into gear and raced towards the given directions. The helicopter took back to the air as we approached. Leo and Dr. Dave were already on the ground racing towards the bull. A large tree stump propped the bull up so he was laying sternal and not flat on his side as typical darted eles fall, his respiratory ways were all clear so we could still proceed despite his unusual position. This guy is called Oliver and he was magnificent! The team surrounded him and quickly got to work. Catharine taking blood samples and adding ear notches for identification, Leo and Phillip fitting him with the very large, satellite receptor collar around his huge neck, and I jumped on taking measurements.
I wrapped my tape measure around the base of both his tusks, measured the length of each one, took his height from the shoulder as well as measured the circumference of his feet. And just like that, less than eight minutes and this guy was fitted with some fancy new jewellery, got poked a few times and measured and he was done! Eight minutes! Dr. Dave gave him an injection of reversal and we all tailed it back to the bakkies as Leo and Dr. Dave hopped back in the chopper. One down. Five to go.
The radio collars send signals to satellites of the elephants’ locations and moving speeds. From this information, ecologists can gain a wealth of information such as when and where the elephant moves to, when he stops to rest or eat, if his movements are affected by the weather or any other factors, and so much more.
Loud static and blurted out directions – another bull down! By the third bull, we were efficient pros each getting straight to their job to work on each elephant as quickly as possible. We had one big boy that went down in some very suction-cup mud which made working around him quite difficult, not to mention very messy. I was not able to access his feet for the circumference measurement and the collar guys had a bit of difficulty getting the collar underneath his massive neck with all the mud providing resistance. But we still managed to get it all down and get the centre reserve bull finished.
The last bull took a bit longer to get back on his feet, making us a bit nervous. Everyone held their breath as the helicopter swept low over the sleeping bull, hoping to stir a reaction. Without any warning, the bull lunged upwards, standing up and reaching up to the sky as the chopper flew past. The group all cheered for him and for us on a job well done. Six bulls successfully fitted with radio collars to provide valuable scientific information. On our drive back with the sun slowly making its colourful decent, we passed by a small pride of lions lounging in the tall grasses and soaking up the last rays of sun.
I think this might have been the greatest day I have ever experienced. The African bush is exactly where I belong, adding my contribution to conservation.