Five orphan elephants collared with GPS tracking in Zambia

One of the orphan elephants receives a health exam while it is under anesthesia and collared.I held the tip of Batoka’s trunk in the palm of my hand to monitor his respiratory rate. Each strong breath ensured he was tolerating the anesthesia well. By placing my hand on the back of his ear, I could feel his pulse rate through the blood vessels. I recorded these data and details of his health exam while other members of the team secured the satellite collar around his neck and took blood samples. At nine years old, Batoka is the second oldest of the elephant orphans at the Kafue Release Facility.

He is now one of five young elephants who are one step closer to being released back into the wild.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has partnered with Game Rangers International’s Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP) to provide rescue, rehabilitation and eventual release of orphaned elephant calves in Zambia.

Depending on age and health, elephants rescued by EOP’s team of caretakers, spend the first one to three years in the care of keepers who take on the role of their mother and provide round the clock care. Young elephant calves often require intensive care and are prone to react adversely to stress and improper diet.

Once the elephants are old enough and about to be weaned, they are moved to the EOP release facility located in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. Here they join the existing herd of older elephant orphans, and begin their journey back to the wild.

One important step as the elephants begin to leave the herd and integrate into the wild is to ensure that we can monitor their progress. We use Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) collaring on released animals to track their movements, health and behavior post-release. We collared five of the oldest elephants at this event.

The team runs tests on Batoka while he is under anesthesia and collared; the author holds the trunk.

Rachael Murton, project manager at EOP, coordinated the collaring.

“Post-release monitoring allows us to evidence a successful release,” she says. “Success in terms of these elephants is leaving our care and living in a wild environment alongside wild elephants, exhibiting wild behaviors and eating wild food sources that are appropriate. To evidence all those things, we need to know where they are going and who they might be hanging out with."

On the morning of the collaring, Dr. Ian Parsons and his wife, Dr. Noleen Parsons flew in to the remote site to anesthetize Chamilandu, Batoka, Maramba, Tafika and Zambezi. They were chosen because of their age and likelihood that they will begin to spend more time on their own away from the release site.

READ: Two orphan elephants graduate, move from nursery to release facility

Each elephant had a team of biologists, vets and keepers with specific roles to care for the animal. After all five elephants received health checks and collars were attached, they were given reversal drugs to wake them from the anesthesia. Within minutes, they were up and walking around the enclosure. We had anesthetized, examined, and collared all five young elephants and had them back on their feet within 40 minutes.

This was no simple task; it was the result of a well-planned and coordinated effort by an experienced team.

The collars will allow us to track the elephants when they are not in visual range. As a Senior Technical Advisor on the project, I participated in the collaring effort. IFAW has partnered with EOP for the last five years and supports all aspects of the project. Our experience and expertise in effective animal rescue and post-release monitoring allow us to bring technical guidance to the project as well.

Another important aspect of post release monitoring (PRM) of elephants is mitigating human-elephant conflict. Often, human settlements encroach on park boundaries and elephants may be drawn to crops as an easy source of food.

These satellite collars are equipped with cutting-edge technology, including the ability to establish “virtual fences;” we can set virtual boundaries around known communities and crop fields and the collars will send an alert to the team via phone and email when an elephant calf approaches too close. A team can then be deployed to help redirect the elephant away from the area and back into the park. This is a huge step forward to avoid human-elephant conflict in the future.

READ: Batoka returns to the Kafue Release Facility

IFAW maintains a strong commitment to responsible release practices. Not only is this a key aspect of the welfare of animals in the rescue, rehabilitation and release process, but it is also an important aspect of research and education for our constituents and partners.

IFAW has taken the lead on the post-release monitoring and driven that forward, providing the EOP staff with researchers who have hand-in-hand designed the post-release monitoring strategy, the database for data collection and ensuring everything is being recorded appropriately and accessed easily.

The team that successfully collared five of the orphan elephants.

The orphans at the EOP receive excellent care from the moment they are rescued, through to their eventual release from the program. However, true success will be measured by the ability of these orphans to survive in the wild and integrate into wild herds. Through satellite collaring, VHF radio tracking and visual observation, we can document the progress of the elephants in this journey.

Chamilandu, Batoka, Tafika, Maramba and Zambezi continue to grow larger and stronger, and are on track to one day experience life back in the wild.

-KM

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