Back home in Tampa, I am able to really think about the month I spent in South Africa getting to know those beautiful elephants. I was able to learn so much about them and what it takes to care for them. Before setting out on this adventure, I planned on learning about the human-elephant conflict in South Africa. What I saw throughout my time there wasn’t conflict, though. I experienced first hand the efforts to improve the welfare of captive elephants.
One thing that I learned quickly was the man power required to take care of these gentle giants. There are 24/7 maintenance staff keeping up the night camp, resupplying food and branches, and keeping the grounds elephant friendly. There are also approximately 20 guides who have unbreakable bonds with the elephants. There job is to spend the day with the ellies, making sure there are no issues and educating guests about them. Then, there is the AERU staff, which has people working seven days a week to analyze data and implement improvements for the elephants. AERU also has volunteers and students in the field everyday, collecting any data needed for their research.
There were two main projects we collected data for: Herd Activity and Nearest Neighbor. Herd Activity required observing what each elephant was doing. This ranged from eating (and what they were eating), interactions with guests, playing/sparring, and sleeping. Nearest Neighbor observed how far apart the individuals of the herd were from each other. Both observations required instantaneous sampling every five minutes. This data is analyzed to determine amount of time spent feeding a day, time spent sleeping, and the relationships between the elephants in the herd. The information collected is then used to ensure they are performing activities an appropriate amount, or used to figure out any issues and where they could stem from. To prevent our elephants from boredom, we were constantly implementing enrichments to keep them thinking. Projects include hanging buckets of food for them to attempt to reach, or figuring out how to get pellets out of a keg that only has a few small holes.
The field shifts were definitely the best part of the work, but it wasn’t always just watching the elephants play. Shifts continued in the pouring rain, freezing cold, and late nights. It may sound bad, but my 2-4:30 a.m. shift was incredible. How many people get to say they watched seven elephants lying down, and listened to them snore? (Which I had no idea they did!)
I can’t thank the staff at KEP and AERU enough for this amazing opportunity. I’ve learned so much, and I am excited to use what I learned to make a difference in the future.
Until next time, South Africa!