Is climate change irrelephant?

Publication date
Wednesday, 19 Jul 2017

My name is Rachael and I’m a total elephant nut. 

When I was a kid, I wanted to live in a safari park, surrounded by animals and wilderness, and of course, with a pet elephant. This year, I had the chance to start living my safari dream as part of my Bachelor of Science (Honours) at ANU. 

I have just returned from three months’ fieldwork at the Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa, where I was collecting data to see how climate change is impacting the elephants’ behaviour, and answering the question: is climate change irrelephant?

There really is no better way to sum up any African adventure than with photos, which I think really do speak one thousand words. 

When I arrived at the Tembe Elephant Park, I spent two weeks volunteering for Wildlife ACT to get to know the park and people.

This is my volunteer group accompanied by one of the resident Predator Monitors. Somehow, we all managed to free-climb this 50ft beacon tower to find the telemetry signal for a female lion nearby, and of course, had to take the opportunity for a photo across the sub-tropical landscape that I lived in.

Wildlife ACT is a not-for-profit organisation that monitors and manages populations of priority species, including African Wild Dogs.

They are the most efficient hunters in the world, doing so by working in a complex but highly effective pack. We were very lucky to have seen a small pack of five dogs, including this beautiful puppy. Wild Dogs are at risk around Africa as they clash with farmers and communities and are often linked with livestock attacks, but also play a crucial role in the ecosystem.

Tembe Elephant Park is a fenced game reserve in South Africa, right at the border of Mozambique.

This photo was taken at 5am, whilst we were searching for rogue male lions on one of our monitoring missions. On the left of the fence is Mozambique, and on the right is South Africa. You can see a ranger station, where armed guards monitor the borders of Tembe looking for poachers and illegal traders.

The elephants of Tembe were my research subjects.

The photo is of a young bull elephant, called Umsweswe, from an angle that not many people get to see – above!

Being in very remote South Africa, the staff and researchers in the park rely on a water catchment tower nearby the camp for backup when other systems fail. Elephants are highly dependent on water, and when the tower overflows, they are in absolute paradise.

However, whilst the elephants might be pleased about this additional water source, it is not always ideal. The pipe that this little guy is sucking at has been pulled up from the ground, and the tower and surrounding vegetation is showing signs of strain caused by the extra elephant activity.

The giraffe population plays an important role in my research.

They are one of the species that follows the elephants into the endangered Sand Forest ecosystems, opening up the canopy to foreign species. In South Africa, they are also surprisingly vulnerable, being poached for their tails which are used to make jewellery. Little males like this one are protected in fenced game reserves, like Tembe.

Talk about office with a view! Every day I would drive to one of my three research sites and observe the elephants.

This specific site, Mahlasela Hide, can be viewed live on Africam. I would take weather recordings using a handheld weather kestrel, and note the behaviours of the elephants using a behaviour matrix that I designed (pictured). I was focusing specifically on cooling behaviours and activity levels, as well as recording the social structure, gender, number of individuals and the ecosystem they were in.

This is Loxy, a Suzuki Jimny.

Loxy was my trusty research vehicle for my time at Tembe, although to be honest, this car was more like a mountain goat than a vehicle. I drove Loxy everywhere - to all of my research sites, on the tourist roads, to the local town, Mangusi, which was an hour away (where I was proposed to twice while I was grocery shopping). Loxy took me to and from the base in Johannesburg nine hours away and even on a short holiday to Saint Lucia.

Tembe requires 4WD at all times, so my skills at driving in sand and on rough dirt terrain are now very refined. The magnet on the side says “Ezemvelo Kwa-Zulu Natal Wildlife: Research” which identified me as a researcher to both park staff, rangers and tourists so they knew I was allowed off tourist roads and was to be given priority when driving amongst tourists. The sticker led to fascinating conversations with both local people and tourists.

The roads in Tembe are not fenced, so when you drive you are driving through the home of every animal in the park.

This meant that traffic jams happened frequently, and for the most spectacular reasons. Often there would be a warthog or an antelope blocking the path. Sometimes, it was a grumpy elephant but ever so occasionally, it was one of the 52 lions which live in the park.

This wonderful lady is called Nyunga. The lions are strictly monitored and were reintroduced into Tembe in 2004, making it a ‘Big Five’ game reserve. They play a critical role in population control, and are equal parts terrifying and jaw-dropping.

I was on my way to a session at one of my research sites, when I ran into some elephant traffic, followed promptly by tourist traffic, making me very late for my session.

Just 50 meters past this hold up, an enormous male leopard ran out onto the road and stopped in his tracks. I stopped the car, turned it off and without wanting to spook him, took my camera out of my bag. A leopard could easily jump into a closed vehicle so I wound down the window just enough to lean the camera out and snap a photo.

I still have to pinch myself that this is a real photo, of a real leopard that I saw purely by a one in a million chance. To put this shot into perspective, Tembe is 133 square kilometres with only nine permanently known leopards inhabiting the area, who are generally nocturnal and highly elusive.

The head ecologist at Tembe hadn’t seen a leopard for 10 years, so this was truly one of the best moments of my time in South Africa.

Over the course of my three months in Tembe I fell in love with the elephants of the park.

I will always look back on this indescribably wonderful creature, Mr MacDonalds (not my name!), to encapsulate my love and passion for elephants.

During my last week at Tembe, I was taken on an elephant monitoring session with Leo, one of the elephant monitors. Mr MacDonalds was on the side of the road, just 15 metres from the car, and was so perfectly content to let us sit and watch him eat his lunch. Elephants are so intelligent and I think it transcends our understanding just how smart they are. He was smart enough to recognise the vehicle and Leo, and let me tell you, there is no moment more pure or life changing than simply watching an elephant be an elephant. Even after three months of living with them, being charged by them and falling more in love with them every day, I’ll openly admit that I cried at having the chance to do this.

Having recently returned, my research so far is indicating that climate change is having an unprecedented effect on the elephants. If poaching and farmer conflict weren’t enough of a threat to the species, climate change is yet another challenge that the elephants must face.

So, if you were to ask me again the relevancy of climate change in conservation biology, particularly in the role of conservation of large mammals, I would say it’s highly relephant.

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