Monitoring the mighty matriarchs

Elephant in Bwabwata National Park
Elephant in Bwabwata National Park
MET Pilot and Rangers
MET Pilot and Rangers
Collared Elephant
Collared Elephant

African elephant herds, led by a matriarch, require vast space for movement. In some parts of Africa elephants migrate annually and usually follow historic migratory routes that lead to food and water sources. Movement patterns are highly complex in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), representing the world’s largest wildlife transboundary area, with elephants moving back and forth through connected wildlife corridors across the five countries – Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – due to food availability and climate patterns.

In Namibia, the Bwabwata National Park which lies between the Okavango and Kwando river, in the Zambezi region forms part of the KAZA landscape. The park is home to rare antelopes such as sable, roan and tsessebe and has a great diversity of indigenous species. The park supports some of the highest concentrations of hippo, crocodile and elephant in Namibia.

Monitoring elephant movements in parks is important for identifying elephant density hotspots, critical habitats, seasonal dispersal areas and corridors that may require enhanced protection. The data from the different collared elephants represent the extent of the current elephant range. In November, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) collared two elephants at the Mahango station in Bwabwata. The elephant collars were sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. The data from the collars will be used to monitor and study the movement of elephants within the KAZA region.

A great deal of work goes into preparing for such an operation, from cleaning and fuelling the helicopter, to loading the vehicles with all the necessary equipment and briefing the team on the ground on what needs to be done. This is an ongoing activity as the battery life of collars only last two years.

Before collaring, the elephants are darted from the sky by the Veterinarian of Etosha Ecological Institute MET, Dr Axel Hartmann. Darting from the air is not an easy task but with years of experience, Dr Hartmann spots the females and carefully darts them. The Chief Pilot at MET, Carl Heinz, skilfully navigates the helicopter in the air as the vet darts the target and hovers the chopper lower to chase the rest of the herd from the darted animal. The ground team which is led by Piet Beytell, Principle Conservation Scientist at MET, rushes in and begin the collaring process as the veterinarian takes the necessary samples from the elephant.

Female elephants in breeding herds are usually the ones that are collared and are a good representation of the herd for understanding seasonal movements and various land use types at different times of the year. The collars are important as the data derived from them aid in elephant conservation and help minimise human-wildlife conflict.


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Siphiwe Lutibezi
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