All female elephant expedition bears fruit (South Africa)

Jan 31, 2020 | News

By Tanya Waterworth, The Independent Online

DURBAN: The all-female expedition covering 10 countries to raise awareness about elephant poaching and which left from Durban in 2016 has yielded valuable research about elephants.

This week, Carla Geyser, expedition leader and founder of Blue Sky Society Trust, a KZN-based conservation non-profit organisation, confirmed that a cow elephant “Ignite”, whose collar was funded from the 2016 expedition, will get a new collar, along with two other elephants in the Phalaborwa area, in March.

During the original expedition, the team visited Elephants Alive in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR), bordering on Kruger National Park, where they learned about monitoring and research during a hands-on elephant collaring operation.

Geyser said since then, her team had worked with Elephants Alive’s Dr Michelle Henley and her crew on a number of occasions, and going back to see “Ignite”, named after the expedition, made her “feel like a proud parent going to see our baby girl”.

The research focuses around two bulls and Ignite who were collared as part of a study to determine how minerals in the soil, water and plants influence elephant movement and Ignite’s collar is reaching the end of its lifespan. The three elephants have regularly visited the Phalaborwa area and their return trips are of huge interest to Elephant Alive scientists and is part of a PhD thesis currently being undertaken.

“Elephants Alive are studying Ignite’s behavioural patterns and they monitor her day-to-day movements, so this can be preventative in the case of elephants potentially being threatened by human-wildlife conflict or poaching.

“The fact that they choose to stay in an area which has humans and big (mining) machinery is bringing up some interesting results from the elephants occupying this area. When this study was first initiated, Dr Henley predicted the elephants were being driven by phosphorous deficiencies, among other micro-nutrients driving their movements. So basically, they are looking for nutrients in that area,” said Geyser.

She said her love for elephants came from the huge animals “embodying everything that is good about Africa and family. The way her matriarch leads her herd with great strength and confidence is inspiring. They are empathetic and compassionate creatures who even grieve for their dead.

“But most of all the matriarch has a network of sisters and other elephants she leans on. They way they support each other is something we, as humans, could learn from. They rely on and protect each other and the bond between mother and children is something magnificent to watch.” Geyser leads expeditions under the banner Journeys With Purpose (#JWP), which focus on visiting wildlife destinations and raising funds for wildlife initiatives along the route.

Regarding the upcoming trip in March, which will see some of the original expedition team get back together, Geyser said: “We formed a very special bond while travelling in 2016 and became sisters.

“In a world filled with so much doom and gloom, it’s so nice to be able to focus on something good for a change. Mama Africa is a special place.”

Dr Michelle Henley, from Elephants Alive, said the research on the Phalaborwa elephants was proving to be very interesting. She said the study included how minerals in the soil, water and plants influenced the elephants’ movement with a focus on the mining areas. This has been done by establishing baseline levels for key minerals and trace metals in African elephant tail, hair and faeces.

Another key objective was to determine if mineral levels in soil, forage and water in those areas are higher than the surrounding national park and so influence the elephant movements. Part of the research has also been to determine if these elephants have higher essential mineral levels compared with those in the national park.

“Elephants Alive is already working on a scientific publication which will emanate from this study,” said Henley.

The operation in March aims to collar three elephants on the same day, which reduces helicopter rental and professional fees such as vets. The #JWP team is fundraising to sponsor two collars and associated vet costs.

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