Take a look at this. It’s the first photograph I took of an elephant on the Mduna side of the Thanda Reserve. Its blurry because she was rushing back to the others after giving us a good telling off. She came right up to the truck and angrily shook her head. In my mind, her huge ears made a slow, deep, flapping sound but I’m not sure if they really did. That’s another reason why the photo’s blurred – my hands were shaking a little.
This encounter was just a few seconds long, but it was a massively important one. Twenty two elephants were brought onto Mduna back in 2011, but sightings are rare. That makes it difficult to follow their progress.
Our job was to take photographs to build up an ID kit. We also had to monitor their behaviour – but when elephants don’t want to be found, its an impossible task. That’s why a small team of us asked if we could go back to Mduna day after day to try and locate them. We had three things at our disposal 1) Camera traps 2) A telemeter and 3) Good old fashioned tracking skills.
The trick with putting up camera traps is trying not to get poked in the eye by a branch or get a photograph taken of your nostril. We set them up to take pictures every fifteen seconds after they were triggered by a movement.
The telemeter got us into a few scrapes. Quite literally. Mduna is very wild – that’s why the elephants can hide so well. After picking up a signal, we followed them through thorny sickle bushes, dozens of spider webs and thick, thick mud. On one occasion, we abandoned the truck altogether and got a tractor to pull it out. After hours and hours of trying – still no sighting.
My favourite method was using tracking skills. Just looking for signs. Could we see footprints, dung, or a tree being flattened with one single step? We logged the GPS of incidents like these, but still no sighting.
After days of scratches and close encounters with golden orb spiders (one so big, that our guide actually stroked it), we were beginning to give up hope. Then, one morning, we discovered that a camera trap had come up trumps. After photos of a few rhino bottoms and an inquisitive Nyala, came this:
Finally – a sighting. We knew where they’d been hiding, but we still needed to get full frontal photographs to help build up our ID kit.
The next day, we got what we wanted.
It was the closest any volunteers had ever got to the herd and for the longest period of time. You get to notice some interesting behaviour when you just sit and watch. Did you know that elephants actually make a grumbling sound to communicate with each other?
This one copied one of the elders – it picked some grass with its trunk and put it on its head. I think it was trying to hide.
This one had been ‘mock eating’ – pretending to be busy with some grass, but actually watching us out of the corner of its eye. When this picture was taken, it came over to say ‘Enough now. We’re leaving’.
Within seconds, they were gone.
Our research work is used by the Space For Elephants Foundation. Its aim is to restore corridors for elephants here in South Africa, where wildlife is restricted by boundaries and fences. It says if there are too many elephants in one place, they’ll start to destroy the habitat they depend upon.