Radio-Collaring Elephants in Namibia
with Keith Leggett
Keith Leggett radio-collars enormous elephants in the Namibian desert to find out where they range and roam-and gets help from a BBC film crew.
Attaching a radio-collar to a 5-ton animal is no easy task. Especially if that animal, say, an elephant, has no interest in cooperating and does not necessarily turn up where you expect it to. This is Keith Leggett's challenge as a researcher with the Northwestern Namibia Desert-dwelling Elephant and Giraffe Project in Namibia, Africa.
With the help of Earthwatch volunteers since 2002, Leggett has been radio-collaring and tracking these enormous pachyderms in the Namibian desert to find out more about their home ranges and travel routes. Why? These elephants don't make very good neighbors - they drink upwards of 30 gallons of water per day, even in the dry season when water is scarce, and are extremely destructive eaters, pushing down and trampling trees and anything in their paths. Not surprisingly, elephants and people in this area have trouble coexisting.
But, Namibian elephants are of great interest to tourists, and this may be the key to their salvation in this country that has been described as the land that God created in anger. Probably a pretty fair description of the environment, says Leggett. Understanding the routines and ecology of elephants is the first step in helping them coexist with humans.
Last February, Leggett got the chance to capture and collar an elephant in front of BBC cameras. This is his report on how it went:
"I went up to the bush two days before the collaring was due and met the BBC team and enjoyed them straight off. We found the mature bull (WKM-14) but the younger bull was nowhere to be seen. After searching for two days and not finding the younger bull it was decided to go with the older mature male. Everyone had arrived in camp by the morning of the proposed collaring so we went straight out to collar the bull. The collaring was absolutely textbook, couldn't think of a more perfect one. The collar went straight under the bull without any hassles, the bull fell in an open area and he responded perfectly to the drugs...perfect!
"On top of all that he moved straight into the floodplains of the Hoanib River, a move none of the previously collared elephants had undertaken. It will be very interesting to see his movements when he comes into musth especially in response to the other dominant bull in the area.
"The film crew themselves were great fun, the only drawback was doing some takes 3 or 4 times... don't know how actors do it. I simply don't have the patience for it. Though they were very good when we were doing the collaring and stayed in the background and out of the way. Mind you it will probably work out to be about 2 minutes of airtime, but at least I have another collar."
In the last three years of leading Earthwatch volunteers into the Namibian desert, Leggett has tracked, observed, and collared numerous elephants, and sends our office back emails from his trips, such as this report from May 18, 2005:
"The first night we were in Purros, 3 elephants walked straight past camp. It appeared that we were going to have a good trip after all, or so we thought. The next two days was spent in the fruitless search for elephants... not another hide nor hair was observed...it was decided to head to the Hoanib River.
"The first we observed on arriving in the Hoanib River was a herd of 5 elephants with one of the cows having a calf of about 3 months of age. He is still totally uncoordinated and lurches from one misadventure to another. The previous calf born in the west was 12 months ago and so a new calf is still a novelty and most of the herd females take turns in guarding and guiding him around. The minders are very vigilant and when the older calf came to play the older animals saw him off... quite amusing at times. The mothers appears to play only a minor role in the overall rearing of the individual, though they are usually doing the nursing though I have seen even other females nurse young periodically. The group takes responsibility for the offspring.
"Later that day we saw the rest of the herd of 14 so it was hog heaven for 2 days and then the elephants disappeared again. It appears as though they are doing circuits at this time of year wandering between feeding areas. They are always moving never slopping for long in one area.
"Overall, the volunteers were excellent and put up with the vehicle breakdowns, lack of elephants and then the total abundance, then absence again with a resigned tolerance... they were also pretty good fun. The west has dried out significantly and the days were very hot, but the nights were cool. There has been significant grass growth this year with the good rains and the animals are all looking in extremely good shape. Springbok, gemsbok and ostrich were abundant and while the elephants have spread pretty thin the rest of the wildlife has collected in feeding aggregations.
"After a shower, a shave and some relaxation time, I feel almost human again..."
Leggett's study is one of the first to scientifically document the home range and movements of these massive animals. Preliminary findings recently published in African Zoology show that elephant movements range from 50 to 625 kilometers (31 to 388 miles), over a period of up to five months, in response to available water and vegetation.
In June, July, and August of 2006, Earthwatch teams will help Leggett track this animal, as well as up to a dozen others that he has radio-collared. They will also identify individual elephants in the field, using distinguishing tusk characteristics, ear scars, and footprint patterns, and observe their behavior. This information will help conservation agencies better manage Namibia's unique desert elephants.