The female elephant slowly raised her trunk, sniffed the air and let out a bellow. Her eyes were wild and she was obviously still disorientated. After a few more sniffs she raised herself up onto her knees and rocked backwards and forwards unsteadily. The effects of the sedation were wearing off but they were still limiting her getting up and the longer she stayed down the more likely her muscles would weaken to the point where she couldn’t get up. The team stood back at a safe distance. We were all willing her to get up.
With a sudden burst of energy, she rocked backwards and forwards another couple of times and rose to her feet. We all cheered and smiled with relief at each other. The elephant shook herself, lifted her trunk again then wandered off between the palms to join her family group.
A few weeks back a friend from church, who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), asked if I would like to help in Murchison Falls National Park for a week. We would be darting elephants to replace their radio collars. It didn’t take me a second to agree to it! We would be working with a team of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) vets, experienced with darting and with a helicopter pilot. A number of elephants had been collared by WCS and UWA before to monitor their movements and feeding habits in the park. The batteries on these collars last for three years and they were close to running out.
We arrived on a Wednesday and met Russel the helicopter pilot. In the afternoon we went out tracking the elephants on the ground with Mustafa, one of the WCS staff. The collars have VHF radio and satellite transponders. Satellite fixes had been obtained from 4-6 hours before. Using these points, we drove to that location in the park then used the VHF to get closer to their direction. The VHF signal was a faint beep noise that grew stronger when the right direction was found. Each individual elephant had their own frequency.
When we found a strong signal we followed that direction until we sighted a group of elephants. This often meant for some pretty rough driving off road in the park. Once we got close we used binoculars and zoom lenses to spot the elephant with the collar. At that point the rest of the ground crew and the helicopter were called.
The ground crew consisted of more WCS staff, Bosco and Joshua, and UWA rangers and vets. There was another WCS vehicle, 2 UWA pick-ups and a large old UWA truck. The UWA truck was used to scare away other elephants when the darted one went down.
The helicopter had Russell, Geoffrey and Dr. Patrick inside. The helicopter made an impressive sight as it swooped between the Borassa Palm trees, herding the elephants into the right spot. Dr. Patrick was experienced with the dart gun but conditions were difficult on the first day. He tried to dart 2 elephants but missed. A flock of migratory birds didn’t help as they flew up into the air in a cloud when the helicopter entered the valley. Russel explained afterwards that it was a close call as he had to pull up right away.
On the second day we found a female with a collar and tracked her. The ground crew were called and the helicopter came in. All were delighted when the dart went in and the elephant went down. The trucks moved in and the collaring team went to work.
First, the old collar was hacksawed off. The new collar was pulled through under the neck with a wire. The transponder sits on the top of the neck and is kept in place by a counter weight, which hangs under the neck. The counter weight was secured by bolts through the collar. The bolts were tightened with a spanner, then cut short with a hacksaw. They were part cut then twisted off with pliers for speed.
At the same time as the collar work, another team was taking measurements of the leg, feet, spine, trunk and tusk length. In addition, blood samples were taken from the ear vein and a skin biopsy from the ear was taken. An injection was given to assist breathing and a covering antibiotic was also given. When the various teams were finishing, this was communicated. The reversing agent for the sedative was given intravenously from two syringes into the ear veins.
The teams worked as a well-oiled machine. They were obviously very well practiced with darting and collar replacement. I was able to help with some measuring and documenting of the process. It was amazing to get so close to these massive animals in the wild.
Over the week fifteen elephants were collared. Some were new candidates; the rest were ones who had pre-existing collars replaced. The information from the collars was to be used by WCS and UWA to track how the elephants moved, especially as there had been reports of bull elephants raiding local farmers’ crops in the north of the park.
It was a fantastic chance as a vet to be involved in this process, but was also useful to meet the UWA vets and hopefully foster contacts for future work experience opportunities for students.