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Monitoring elephants... Viviane' story

Our Volunteer Viviane Gernaert returned to LEO Africa recently to help us with our elephant census. Following six weeks of photographing and identifying some of the many herds within Marataba, she tells us about her experience.

Elephants make my day better!

After spending 4 weeks with LEO Africa over Christmas 2016, Koos (LEO Africa’s Director) and I spoke about how I could support LEO Africa with their elephant monitoring project. I have volunteered at several different projects over the last 5 years, all of which had a main focus on monitoring elephants. So I had a good idea of the challenges involved in following them and capturing good ID pictures of each individual.

Winter-time is dry and therefore an ideal time to find thirsty herds around the river on a regular basis. As the vegetation is baron it also makes it easier to spot them. So from August to September, six weeks in total, I had the pleasure and honour of spending a lot of time with the elephants in the Marataba Section of the Marakele National Park.

My task was to build up ID kits for the several different herds living within the Park. I went out almost every day with Veronica, Koos or Sabrina, setting off around noon, equipped with my camera, binoculars, a lot of water and sunscreen and sometimes accompanied by 2 or 3 other volunteers.

After a couple of days, we had a good system for finding one or more herds around the river. Still, we call them ninjas! It´s unbelievable how a herd of 20 elephants can just be invisible!

So the next challenge was to get good pictures of the individuals. This means good shots of both ears, the tusks, a frontal shot, best with open ears, and body photos from both sides. Sounds not so difficult... but these things don´t pose in front of the car, first showing one side, then turning around to show their other side so that you know both sides belong to the same individual. And since there is no better thing to do during the hottest part of the day then to take a bath in the river, they were hidden in the reeds most of the time. I was very jealous, sitting in the back of the car, baking in the sun whilst they were refreshing in the water!

After a couple of hours driving back and forth to get good visuals, we went back to camp with around 400 new pictures to be sorted and identified.

Who is who and who belongs to which herd?

I felt like a detective going through my daily yield, comparing pictures to some previous ones, deciding which ones are useful and preparing them for the ID kits. After a while I had some kind of an idea of the different herds I met on a regular basis. It was pretty helpful that in every herd there is at least one cow with very distinct features, like a big V cut in the left ear. This meant I at least knew the herd as a starting point.

Of course sometimes there were more than one herd present, and they mixed up nicely.

That was always an impressive sight; having 30 or 40 elephants in front of you, playing, feeding and enjoying themselves, but it also left me with a big headache. It took me many hours to sort the photos out and create usable ID folders. I was working long hours, but for me it was the most fantastic thing I have done in Africa, ever!!!

Elephants were always my favourite and again this time I was so touched and impressed by their presence, playfulness, kindness, sensitivity, strength and their characters. With some of them I had special moments I will never forget!

I know people can use what I have worked on as a basis for identification and monitoring from now on. And being part of building up a usable database of these elephants makes me very proud. I am so thankful for this experience and it was fantastic how much trust was given to me from the LEO team and how many great people I met during my stay. It was amazing!!!


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