Darting and Collaring Elephants in Uganda
By Mark Riley
Large bodied and wide ranging animals such as elephants need extensive areas of habitat for their survival, often bigger than any single national park or wildlife reserve. Dispersal areas and migration corridors that allow animals to move between such protected areas may be critical for the long term survival of populations that would otherwise be isolated. These corridors and the parks themselves are under increasing pressure from growing human populations and activities. Where elephants range outside protected areas and into farmland and villages, conflict often ensues. Elephants can destroy crops, damage property and even kill or injure local people. In order to protect such species, we need to know their movement patterns, to ensure that conservation efforts can focus on managing and protecting migration corridors, and to identify potential conflict hotspots.
So how can you accurately track over several years the movements of a far ranging herd of elephants?
For the last six years, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has been working with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to put satellite tracking collars on elephants across Uganda. These collars include a Global Positioning System (GPS) which pinpoints the elephant’s position and sends coordinates back through the satellite system, which can be downloaded from any computer with an internet connection. It is the same technology that Kampala Aeroclub uses to track their fleet of aircraft.
So how do you put a 25kg collar on a 5 ton animal that can move through dense bush and reach 40 km/h?
The theory is nice and easy. Dart your elephant with a powerful, fast acting anaesthetic. Strap on the collar while it is sleeping, administer the antidote and log onto www.wheresmyelephant.com. In reality it is not quite that simple.
In open flat grassland where four wheel drive vehicles can move around fairly easily, an elephant can be darted from a vehicle and followed for the 5-10 minutes it takes for the anaesthetic to work and the elephant to fall asleep. The quickest and easiest technique is to dart from a helicopter. Where vegetation is thick and access by vehicle difficult or impossible, this is often the only option.
WCS and UWA carried out two elephant collaring exercises in April and December 2010 using the air assets from Kampala Aeroclub at Kajjansi. The first was in the remote north-east corner of Adjumani District and the second in the densely wooded Chobe area of Murchison Falls National Park.
The exercise was led by wildlife vets Dr Patrick Atimnedi of UWA with help from Dr Mike Kock of WCS. Between them Patrick and Mike have many years of experience in capturing various types of animals including darting elephants from the air and ground. The spotter plane was a C172 flown by Sanae Ishitani with Alastair McNeilage, the head of WCS Uganda, observing and coordinating from the air. The helicopter was flown by yours truly. This is a serious business so thorough briefings were held on who was doing what and how and everyone practiced their individual and joint roles. This even included a full dry run chasing a landcruiser along Adjumani runway pretending to be our fleeing pachyderm.
As usual in the bush the days begin at dark o’clock so we could get airborne early and catch the animals while it was cool and they were returning from their nights activities. The spotter plane sets off to search likely areas and the helicopter deploys either to search or wait nearby until a suitable herd is located. Once a group is found the helicopter will manoeuvre them as necessary towards an area with a nearby landing site that is relatively flat and clear of obstructions so it can safely land after the darting. The darter will select the preferred animal from the group and confirm which one with the helicopter pilot. Now the real fun begins. The helicopter pilot must position the darter a few metres behind and to one side of the chosen beast so he will have a clear shot. This can involve some very exciting flying in amongst the trees with the darter hanging out of the door tracking the elephant in his sights waiting for the right moment to fire. The dart is a very bright colour so the darter and pilot can both see where it hits and if it injects fully. Once the elephant is darted the helicopter will pull quickly away to reduce the pressure and stress on the herd while the anaesthetic takes effect. It is now up to the pilot to separate and persuade the rest of the herd to retire to a safe distance while keeping the darted elephant as close as possible to the selected LZ with a bit of aerial mustering
Once the anaesthetic starts to take effect the elephant begins to slow down, become unsteady on its feet and the males may relax a certain part of their anatomy. Obviously you need to be flying quite low to notice this particular sign. Once the elephant goes down then the helicopter crew must land quickly and get to work to keep the amount of time it is asleep to a minimum. Before landing the crew will note whatever landmarks are available as it can sometimes be hard to find something even as big as an elephant in close bush, and just as importantly, how to get back to the helicopter. The team will extend the elephant’s trunk and insert a small stick in the end to ensure an unobstructed air passage. Once you have heard a snoring elephant you will never complain about your partners sleeping habits again. The elephant’s ear is thrown over its head to protect its eyes. This also gives access to large veins in the ear through which the elephant’s condition can be monitored and the antidote administered.
Ideally access by the ground crew will be possible making the whole process quicker and easier. However, elephants understandably don’t always want to play this game and often the ground crew can not get into the site quick enough or at all and it is left to the helicopter crew to complete the whole job. If the elephant does not fall conveniently then it may need turning onto its side or some clearing of vegetation or soil under the elephants neck may be necessary in order to get the collar fitted. This can involve a lot of pushing, shoving, sweating and sometimes even swearing. Once the collar is fitted it is time to clear the area and administer the antidote. This is very fast acting and a full grown elephant can be back on its feet looking for its tormentors in one or two minutes. Before this is administered the bulk of the crew retire, the helicopter is wound up to maximum rotor speed and power increased so we are “light on the skids”. As the last man comes running through the bush he can jump onto the helicopter and we can lift immediately before the elephant realises where we are. Once airborne again we observe the elephant to make sure it is fully recovered and the collar is sitting properly around its neck. The elephant will now indignantly return to its friends wondering what the heck just happened.
The elephants quickly get used to the collars and do not suffer any ill effects. One elephant in Namibia was even observed to carry his collar around with his trunk for several months after it fell off when the strap broke. He had grown so used to having it he could not bear to be parted from it.
Elephants around Chobe are coming into increasing conflict with local communities to the north of the park as this area is being increasingly resettled by people after the end of the LRA conflict in northern Uganda. In Adjumani, along Uganda’s northern border with South Sudan, elephants cross from Nimule National Park sometimes coming into conflict with local people. Until recently, however, we had very little specific information on their movement patterns in these areas. Historically elephants migrated from Murchison north along the eastern side of the Nile to Sudan, but we do not know whether they are still able to make this journey.
Next Issue we will see where our four elephants have been wandering and look at how this information is being used.