Elephant research in Chizarira, Zimbabwe

by African Lion & Environmental Research Trust
Elephant research in Chizarira, Zimbabwe

A total of 8 elephants have so far been collared in the combined unfenced Chizarira National Park and Chirisa Safari Area.  This Protected Area in the north of Zimbabwe straddling the Zambezi Valley (part of the downfaulted Rift Valley system) is 3,623km2 in extent and comprises untouched bush for a variety of wildlife including 4 of the Big 5 (elephants, lions, leopards and buffalo).

Our project on elephants aims at obtaining population characteristics and also to monitor their movements.  The Protected Area (PA) is surrounded by peasant farming communities on the Valley floor and elephants from the PA do go down into the Valley and raid crops  There has been a number of deaths of people trying to protect their meagre crops.

By having one elephant in a herd collared we can advise the community of a potential elephant incursion so that they can take precautions to protect the crops such as fires, dogs, noise, vuvuzelas, and other non-lethal methods.

An important part of the project is to identify traditional paths (corridors) that elephants have used for hundreds of years between what are now designated PA`s.  Amazingly the knowledge of these corridors has been passed down by the matriarchs so that elephant today still try and use the same routes.  Sadly with a growing human population, these paths are frequently blocked by settlements and crops resulting in conflicts. 

Once a wildlife corridor is positively identified through monitoring movements of collared elephants, we can lobby to have the corridors opened.  This is a difficult process but as the PA we are working in is part of the greater KAZA TFCA which encompasses 5 countries covering 519,912km2, and we are all looking at re-establishing traditional corridors for wildlife, there is a greater chance of success.  Our movement data feeds into the data-base created by the 5 countries so that eventually we can lobby with a united voice.

By having open corridors between Protected Areas, elephants and other wildlife species can resume their traditional migratory routes and have access to a greater area in which to roam.

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Collaring the 6th elephant for research
Collaring the 6th elephant for research

ELEPHANT RESEARCH IN CHIZARIRA NATIONAL PARK ZIMBABWE

 

The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) carries out various management-based research projects in the 1,910km² Chizarira National Park in the north of Zimbabwe.  This includes work on lions and elephants.  Both species are classed as “vulnerable” under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

Our elephant research has gone well this past year despite the shortage of manpower and financial instability.  We partner with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and WWF in our research and acknowledge both with thanks.  The support that we get from GlobalGiving donors makes the project sustainable.  Thank you to you all.

During the period covered by this report, the ALERT team collared two more elephants (1 male and 1 female) and we have been following their movements regularly using the GPS function in the collar. In order to observe the herd we use the VHF function in the collar and track them on foot using a directional aerial.  Getting visual sightings is important so that we can obtain herd demographics and feeding preference.

Overall, the research gives insight into population numbers, the demographics of the population (which in turn indicates whether the population is healthy or not, and what the survival rate is of calves).  We share this data with the park management so that they know what the elephant population is doing and whether they need to increase protection. 

In addition our data is shared with other elephant researchers working in the Sebungwe Area and the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) which encompasses Angola,  Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe as a potential Conservation Area of a staggering 519,512km2 in extent.  The importance of the TFCA is that wildlife can move between countries following traditional wildlife corridors which will allow gene flow and assist in relieving population pressure.

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This important project which is to ensure the long-term conservation of elephants in Chizarira National Park(1,910km2 in extent) has four key objectives: First to ascertain what the population structure is (how many animals, what ages and sexes, the average size of a herd; secondly plot out the  movements of the elephant population; thirdly to establish possible wildlife corridors between Protected areas; and fourthly to look at possible human-wildlife conflicts and come up with ways to prevent these conflicts.

In order to achieve these objectives we collar elephants with a GPS Satellite collar that also has a VHF function which allows us to track the elephant on foot.  The GPS/satellite function allows us to download movement data from a satellite so that we have an accurate movement pattern of collared herds.  When we go out on foot to find the elephants we collect population data when we see the herd, and also look at interactions between herds. 

With 5 elephants now collared, information on this vulnerable species is growing and we are steadily obtaining the information vital to conserving the species.  The information is given to the Park management so that they can work from an informed perspective to conserve the elephant population in the park.

All of the collared animals (i.e. the herd) have left the park at various times (most just short sojourns), but one bull in particular has left the park and visited two Protected Areas, giving us a glimpse into possible corridors utilized by wildlife through peasant farming land between safe areas.  This bull has travelled over 450kms since it was collared on 26th April 2021 reaching the southern banks of Lake Kariba.  Monitoring continues.

A further cow was collared on the 4th September 2021.  She was in a herd of about 30 animals (in thick scrub so the count was no confirmed).  When the herd was seen, the team climbed a well treed termitaria (ant hill) to observe them.  Three of the team then crept up on foot to a cow and she was darted.  After 5 minutes she was unconscious and we were able to quietly approach her and place a sheet over her head to protect her eyes and to prevent visual stimulation which could cause here to wake up.  Because of the way she fell, fitting the collar was a mission and at one stage I was lying under her neck trying to secure the two ends of the collar.  All went well and after giving the reversal drug she was soon on her feet and joining the herd.

This project will go a long way to ensuring that the elephant are protected, and because there are now some population parameters in place we will be able to detect if there is illegal killing.

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ALERT and Parks staff collaring a bull elephant
ALERT and Parks staff collaring a bull elephant

The elephant research and monitoring project in Chizarira National Park is progressing well despite all of the negative things that seem to surround us all at this time.

On the 26th April 2021, the ALERT team led by Dr Monks was able to collar a large bull elephant.  The GPS collar unit beams a signal to a satellite giving updates of the animal’s position during the transmission time.  We have set the collar to transmit every 6 hours through the 24 hour period, i.e. 4 downloads a day.

Locating elephant in the Park was not an easy task.  The Park received exceptional rains this last season (November – April) and the grass was towering over our heads.  The National Park Ranger that was assigned to assist us asked me to stop the vehicle at one very thickly grassed area.  He then climbed a large tree nearby and excitedly gestured that there were elephant about 1 kilometer ahead.  We got the equipment for darting and collaring together and began walking through the tall grass in the direction that the elephants were in.  In some places the ground was marshy and we could not keep our footsteps quiet as we sloshed through mud and water.  Eventually we saw a big bull elephant ahead of us.  He was facing away from us and appeared to be sleeping on his feet.  The rest of the herd (about 25 animals in a breeding family group) was browsing about 150 meters in front the bull.  Dr Monks and a Parks Ranger crept up to within 30 meters of the bull and was able to dart him in the rump.   His head shot up and he looked around and then relaxed.  After about 3 minutes he walked towards the rest of the unconcerned elephants and slowly went down on his side.  The family group ran off when they saw the team and we were able to fit a collar and carry out some basic measurements before reviving the bull.  The reversal drug takes about 3 minutes to begin taking effect; first the ears start moving and the animal starts to ponderously get back on its feet and slowly move off.

The surrounding Community of subsistence farmers are keen to have more elephants collared so that we can warn them of potential crop raiders.  They will then take action (fires, noise, and dogs) to prevent the elephant destroying crops.  At a Rural District Council (RDC) workshop held at Binga on 6th and 7th April, to look at human-wildlife conflict and what mitigation measures could be used, ALERT was commended for the work that it was doing in support of communities.

Our elephant and lion research ties in with supporting the local communities and we are proud to be making a difference.  The attached map shows just how far out of the park and into the Communal Lands elephants move.  Thank you for your support.  We and the surrounding communities deeply appreciate it.   

TRacking the colared elephant
TRacking the colared elephant
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A collared elephant bull caught on camera trap
A collared elephant bull caught on camera trap

We are writing this report from our research headquarters in the 1 910 km2 Chizarira National Park.  The wide-open unspoiled spaces around us give relief from the confines that the Covid epidemic is causing. We hope that by reading this report you will experience together with us, the privilege we have of carrying out this important field work.  Frequent visitors at the research base are the spotted hyaenas, elephants, lions, impala, waterbuck, warthog, buffalo and a large variety of birds.

The ALERT team has been able to carry on its operations in Chizarira National Park and in the surrounding Communal Lands that surround this large unspoiled island ecosystem despite the epidemic.  To date, three elephants have been collared with satellite collars.  Through 6-hourly satellite downloads from the collars we are able to monitor and map movements of the herds. We are also able to track the herds on the ground where we can obtain demographic data that will give us a better idea of the population structure.

This information has been lacking since the last researcher working on elephants left in 1976.  ALERT as a research NGO, works closely with the Park management and ecologist, who rely on us for transport and research equipment.  In addition our work links in to the elephant work being carried out in the greater KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area which encompasses the Kavanga/Zambezi River systems of five countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

This year we will be adding another four collars to selected elephants in the Park so that eventually seven herds will be marked and tracked.  An important aspect of our work is to look at the connectivity between Protected Areas.  Elephants and other animals use traditional wildlife corridors between the Protected Areas and by identifying these corridors we can work with the Authorities to ensure that they are kept open.  Thank you for your continued support!


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African Lion & Environmental Research Trust

Location: London - United Kingdom
Website:
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Twitter: @lionsinafrica
Project Leader:
Stuart Armstrong
London, United Kingdom
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