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Elephants Go Wild

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Our ground-based conservation partners have recently seen a huge step forward in release progression at the Kafue Release Facility. For the first time ever a sub-group of the orphans has split and left in the company of wild elephants. Whilst this is a very exciting development towards their progression of living back in the wild where they belong, we cannot help but feel a little nervous about the next steps for these adolescent elephants.

Game Rangers International

Over the years we have seen many of the elephants leaving from time to time, staying away for days or weeks and then returning to the main herd. This is the organic way in which the elephants start to find their independence and it’s usually the oldest elephants who chose to do this. However, on this occasion Maramba (13yr) and Mphamvu (10yr) who are at an age and stage where we would expect them to leave, left the orphan herd with another five orphans in tow! They were observed a few days later in the company of wild elephants only 1km from the Release Facility, grazing and socialising. This is a fantastic demonstration of the ability of the orphans to socialise and be accepted by their wild counterparts. Moving so closely to the Release Facility in areas they know well also reassures us that the orphans are comfortable in their surroundings and are choosing to spend time in the wild.

Game Rangers International

We are however nervous about these next steps, as whilst the male elephants who left are all of substantial size and age (including Muli and Muchi 8 and 8¾ years old), three female elephants also left with them, Kasewe, Mkaliva and Lani (5½ -7½ years old) who would be vulnerable to predators if they were alone. The seven elephants who have separated demonstrate a herd composition that is consistent with existing social bonds and herd dynamics, which explains why they split in this manner, and we hope that these deep bonds will keep them together.

Game Rangers International

They have now been away from the Release Facility for over two weeks and have not joined the other six orphans on the daily walk although we have experienced an occasion where the Keepers are sure they were communicating with them, as the orphans became very excited periscope-sniffing their trunks and rumbling. We are surprised that they have not reconnected with their herd, and we expect that they will return once we start to see a shift in the season, which causes natural changes in the movements of the wild elephants in the area. We also believe they have since separated from the wild herd they left with, as a few days ago they were seen by the research team 4km north of camp. The seven were together but no wild elephants were seen nearby. At this time of year, the vegetation is still very thick, the grass is long, and many areas are wet and impassable which has made tracking the elephants quite challenging.

Game Ranger International

Historically we have never seen as much movement or wild elephant integrations as we are now starting to see, and with this shift in release behaviour, we are revisiting our post-release monitoring capabilities and will aim to start satellite collaring all the elephant orphans from the time they join the Release Facility. Previously we had only collared elephants who were showing signs of starting to leave since there is a significant cost involved in utilising collars as well the need for sedation. However, the elephants are now showing us that we need to be ready for them to wander away from us at any time, and in order to fully understand their release journey and success, we need to be able to track them individually.

Stay tuned for more updates on these elephants’ newfound freedom. 

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