Welgevonden’s Placid Pachyderms and why we monitor their movement

Welgevonden’s elephant monitoring programme was first initiated in 2006 where Dave Powrie (current warden of Sabi Sands) was given the task of observing elephant behavioural response to the (then) experimental, newly introduced contraceptive drug, Porcine Zona Pellucide (PZP).

With this new technology proving successful in regulating elephant population size and no recorded changes in the social behaviour of elephant herds, more than 10 years later, the elephant monitoring programme has evolved to that of a more complex nature.

The approximate 115 elephants on Welgevonden are closely monitored by current elephant monitor, Matthew Thorp, who aims to better understand the behaviour of the elephants, ID each individual, and monitor the movement patterns of the entire population.

Photo by: Jessica Oosthuyse

Ever heard the myth that elephants never forget? Well, this is not far from the truth. In fact, researchers believe that an elephant’s remarkable recall power is largely responsible for their survival. Matriarch elephants in particular are able to store hordes of social knowledge that their herds cannot go without. In addition to their memory, elephants are also known to be extremely intelligent, form close family ties and have socially complex population structures.

The intricate complexity of elephant behaviour contributes towards the difficulty in managing this keystone species. It is important that management teams understand the behaviour, social structures, and movement patterns of these placid pachyderms. This will ensure that informed decisions are made with regards to their management, ultimately ensuring a peaceful experience for both elephants and human during game viewing.

Photo by: Eline Testroote

A major element of the elephant monitoring process involves tracking the GPS movements of a number of carefully selected elephants on the reserve. In order to achieve this, GPS and VHF (very high frequency) technology is embedded into an expertly designed elephant collar that is then fitted around the selected elephant’s neck.

If you look carefully, you can see the elephant collar protruding from the elephant’s neck. Photo by: Matthew Thorp

Both these technologies are used to track the elephant’s movement. While GPS data is sent straight through to computers for analysis, the VHF signals are picked up by a special apparatus, known as a “telemetry”, that allows the elephant monitor to pick up the general location of the elephant while out in the field.

Access to this information is vital if management are to improve their understanding of elephant behaviour. Analysis of movement data should shed light on the general movement patterns of the various herds and lone bulls, elephant population structure within the reserve, major elephant corridors (what paths the elephants frequently use to move between areas), the rate of movement between these areas, and how long the elephants spend time in areas secluded from humans (or “refuge areas”).

Peaceful coexistence- Photo by: Matthew Thorp

This information is then correlated to human variables like: vehicle density, infrastructure, frequency of road use, fences, etc. These correlations will help understand how we, as humans in a natural system, might influence the natural behaviour of the elephant population. Where these elements are understood, the Welgevonden team will be able to make improved managerial decisions, ensuring that human elements within the ecosystem do not interfere with the natural behaviour of our wild elephant herds.

Photo by: Jess Oosthuyse

Ultimately, Welgevonden management hopes to maintain a demographically viable population of elephants, maintain a functioning ecosystem, control population growth, contribute to an understanding of biology and management of elephants, and contribute towards elephant conservation. Accumulating enough behavioural data will help improve management decisions and lead the reserve closer to obtaining these goals.

Photo by: Matthew Thorp