Our Wildlife Emergency Response Unit (WERU) recently helped to collar a number of elephants in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park. 

The unit was responding to a request for assistance from African Parks, which manages the areas. The aim of the operation was to dart the elephants in order to fit tracking devices for African Parks’ management purposes. 

Putting a tracking collar on an animal of this size and strength is no easy task. WERU members worked closely with African Parks staff to complete the job. In Nkhotakota alone the team fitted collars to 10 elephants in five days. In this blog our Head Vet Dr. Amanda walks through the process step by step. 

1. Take to the skies

“In this case the rangers on the ground had identified the elephant we needed to collar. He had a large muddy patch on his backside, which made it pretty easy to spot him from the helicopter”, she said. 

WERU works closely with African Parks helicopter pilot Brad Reid, who has been flying in this area for five years. Amanda says, “Brad and I have been working together for years – in fact his first elephant was my second elephant so we have developed our skills together.” They estimate that together they’ve completed field operations on over 50 elephants, 30 black rhinos, 5 lions, 3 cheetahs and 1 buffalo. 

Brad says, “The pilot/vet communication is key to the success of the darting operation. The pilot needs to get the helicopter in the right position, taking into account various factors such as downwash, wind, vegetation as well as the aircraft’s limitations, in order to make the shot possible for the vet. It’s a great privilege being a very small piece in a conservation puzzle that continues to grow and make a difference for Malawi’s natural heritage.”

2. Dart the animal with an anaesthetic

Aiming from a moving helicopter 40 feet up in the sky is a skill that takes time to master. “Darting can be reasonably easy or hard, depending on the animal and the terrain”, says Amanda. “Elephants are great because they are so big and usually we can get reasonably close. Cheetahs are another thing entirely! In most of our darting, there are tall trees and scrub and it’s not easy to get close or we can get close for just a moment – hopefully the moment I can get the dart in! If I blow it, we have to find the next opportunity.”

3. Track the animal until it’s down 

Once the drug has been administered, time is of the essence. Tracking the animal to locate where it has fallen down is easier in wide open spaces. In more heavily vegetated or forested landscapes it can be difficult to maintain a visual on the animal and land the helicopter nearby. “Because this was such a nice open place, I was able to take a quick video of the elephant, but in areas with more trees I wouldn’t take my eyes off him for a second”, says Amanda.

4. Get to work 

Once the helicopter has landed and the ground crew has arrived, the operation can commencewhether it’s fitting a collar or carrying out a veterinary procedure. If necessary, Brad may take to the skies again to keep the rest of the herd at a safe distance, but close enough that the animal can easily find the group when it wakes up. 

In Nkhotakota the ground crew was available but due to terrain and bush they were not always able to get to the location, which meant Amanda was responsible for looking after the elephant while the African Parks team member fitted the collar. When it was safe for Brad to land nearby he was sometimes able to assist with this. 

Amanda explains, “The first thing we do when an elephant goes down, even from the air, is to make sure that the trunk is clear. In Nkhotakota one elephant fell with her trunk under her front right foot. Brad dropped me as close as possible and I immediately pulled it out from her foot and fortunately she was ok. This is one of the biggest risks for elephant captures. I have to take stock of the situation and make the decision whether to carry on with the operation or wake the animal up as soon as possible. Safety first!”  

“We use a rebar with a small bend at the end to slide the collar under the neck, hook the collar, and then pull it underneath. Sometimes, with really big bulls, it takes multiple people to pull the collar under the elephant’s neck”.

In this video, WERU assistant Laston Chimaliro kneels by the elephant’s trunk to monitor its breathing. He does this by feeling the breath coming out of the trunk and watching the body expand with each breath. There is no need to listen for breath, which makes monitoring possible even in a noisy situation.

5. Make sure the animal wakes up safely 

In this video you can see the elephant flipping his ear as it comes round from the anaesthetic. Amanda says, “Some vets might flip the ears back to stimulate the wake up process but you also have to make sure you have enough time to get yourself and your team safely out of the way before the animal is up and about, so I usually prefer to let the animal take its own time.”

The reversal drug is administered directly into the elephant’s vein in its ear, so it is usually back up in a few minutes. “This guy was cool, calm and collected. He rocked back and forth for a bit, got up, sniffed around, and took a pee before wandering off to join his friends – which is exactly what you want to see!”, says Amanda.

The data from this elephant’s tracking collar will be used by park management to better understand herd movements within the parks.