Elephant research in Chizarira, Zimbabwe

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

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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ALERT initiated an elephant research project in Chizarira National Park (1,910km2) in 2019 together with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.  The Chizarira National Park ecologist works closely with the ALERT researcher.  Sadly, he was involved in a light aircraft accident whilst on wildlife counts.  One team member was killed, and two injured.  He was apparently not injured but despite two weeks of searching he has not been found.  The plane went down in hilly country in the mid-Zambezi Valley.

Despite this sad news we continue the research that we initiated and last month collared another female elephant.  The operation went well and the female was back on her feet soon after receiving the drug antagonist and rejoined the herd.  At the time of writing we are at Chizarira to try and collar a bull elephant.  Bull elephant wander more widely that the female herds and we are hoping to obtain some valuable data that could indicate connecting wildlife corridors between the Protected Areas around Chizarira.  

We are obtaining interesting movement patterns from the two collared females.  The collar has a built in GPS which transmits a position signal to a satellite.  We then download these points onto an electronic map.

The one collared female with her family group, appears to make short forays into the nearby villages outside of the park.  These visits are not for long: in at night and back into the park before sunrise.  This is undoubtedly a clever tactic that keeps them safe from reprisals from villagers but is nevertheless cause for concern.

We are looking at the possible trigger which initiates movements out of the unfenced park.  Where the elephants left the park to enter the villages, there is a high escarpment (600 meters) which normally acts as a barrier to wildlife.  However elephants use contours in a zig zag fashion to gain access up and down steep gradients.  At the time of writing the park is very dry and hot, and the forays into the villages would normally be to raid maize crops.  However planting has not begun and it could be that the elephant are investigating old traditional wildlife corridors, looking for better forage in other Protected Areas.  It could be that they were disturbed during this investigation.

Thank you for your support of this important project which we continue to carry out despite many challenges.   

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Chizarira National Park (1,910km²) is found in the Sebungwe district (15,529km²) of Zimbabwe and encompasses various National Parks (Chizarira, Hwange, Matusadona), Safari Areas (Matetsi, Chirisa and Chete), and surrounding Communal Lands.  The total elephant population in Sebungwe is 3,407; a 75% reduction of the population over a number of years (Figures from the Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Plan 2015-2020).

Initially, ALERT’s research on elephants in Chizarira will be to obtain base-line data on the population so that future elephant demographics can be compared to reliable data.

For this research, elephants are darted and fitted with satellite collars allowing the ALERT research team to track them remotely and on foot.  Information such as movements (daily and seasonal), herd numbers and sex composition are important in understanding a population.

Collaring elephants is no easy feat and takes days of tracking them on foot in order to find and identify appropriate individuals to collar to achieve the results needed. Recently the ALERT team spent over 5 days tracking elephants in the hopes of collaring two more individuals to increase the data set. Unfortunately, although many signs of elephants were observed, we were not able to locate an appropriate elephant to collar this time. The female that was collared in August last year (2019) is giving good data on movements within the park and also shows forays that they make into the Communal lands (see map).  It is this kind of data that will help the National Park Authority to better manage this decreasing elephant population in the future.

Hopefully we will have more positive news in the next progress report so keep in touch.

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African Lion & Environmental Research Trust

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