For the first part of leg two the Rise of the Matriarch crew was based in Hoedspruit. I travelled a lot here as a child when it was still one or two shops and a petrol station. Today, Hoedspruit is the gateway to central Kruger and a thriving hub for the safari industry as well as numerous wildlife conservation projects and initiatives.
There is so much creative collaboration amongst the Conservation Collective in this area it can be tricky to untangle some projects. For the purposes of simplifying this post I will highlight our adventures with Elephants Alive. But keep in mind that Conservation Collective – like minded groups with a nature conservation focus collaborating to increase the impact of their endeavours.
I have written about the incredible work of Elephants Alive in previous posts like this one – A Conservation Collective.
References to Elephants Alive have also found their way into a number of posts on my personal blog:
On our Rise of the Matriarch adventure we got to see and experience three aspects of the Elephants Alive team’s work.
Big Trees Project Manager, Robin, took us for an intrepid adventure to check out his beehives positioned in large Marula trees in Jejane Private Nature Reserve. The bees keep the elephants away, saving these ecologically significant well-established trees.
It’s an unseasonably rainy Sunday as we set off to visit the bee project. A gap in the rain allows some of the crew to ungracefully don bee suits, veils and all, and follow Robin to check out a nearby hive. He talked us through a day in the life of his bee project. It certainly has its challenges but Robin’s amazing passion for this project and the successes they are seeing is captivating.
The gap in the unseasonal rain ends. It begins again in earnest. We retreat back to the vehicles only to pause as a small group of elephant bulls pass quite close to where we are parked. We spend some time in our cars watching them quietly enjoying a wet breakfast before heading back into town for a yummy Sunday lunch.
As we arrive at the gate out of the reserve, the magnificent big tusker Isilweni and his askari surprise us with a visit. Slowly calmly he moves toward us, reaching up into a fever tree for a snack, then moving round to drink from the puddle our back tyre is parked in. So close those in the back seats could have reached out and touched him. A breath taking moment for all of us in the presence of elephant greatness
By the next day the rain had cleared and we could take a wander in Jess’ garden. Jess is the Coexistence Garden Project Manager amongst other things for Elephants Alive. The Coexistence Garden project is another fantastic initiative born out of a deep passion for elephant conservation.
The aim of this garden is to research and experiment with growing crops that are unpalatable to elephants as a science-based tool to mitigate human-elephant conflict outside of protected areas.
This idea came from the extensive work collaring elephants to monitor their movements. The EA team realised that a lot of elephant movement happened at night and between protected areas. If corridors could be created avoiding human habitation and lined with unpalatable planting, perhaps elephants could be protected at the same time as crops are protected.
The work on this is ongoing but wandering through the beautiful rows of plants, ducking into green houses, listening to the hum of the bees and breathing in the fragrances of aromatic plants, you cannot help but get excited about the possibilities here. By reducing human-elephant conflict there are countless positive flow on effects and ways to empower communities. I can’t wait to see how this project plays out.
Part of our Rise of the Matriarch fundraising went towards a new radio collar for an elephant. The indomitable matriarch Dr Michelle Henley, the Director, Co-founder and Principal Researcher for Elephants Alive, decided this collar should be used to replace an already collared female, Umbabat. She is part of a very large herd that moves within the Greater Kruger area.
Joel, Researcher, Education Liaison Officer and another human passionate for elephant conservation was assigned to take care of the ROTM crew.
Jess went up at sunup in a fixed wing aircraft piloted by Dave to look for Umbabat. The ground team, including us, waiting with anticipation. They were just about to call it a no as fuel was low when she was spotted. We all jumped in the vehicles and headed for that spot.
There was a delay with the vet Ben in the helicopter. We waited at a nearby lodge as Umbabat’s herd came in small groups to drink at the lodge swimming pool.
Eventually, the sound of the helicopter could be heard in the distance. Once on the ground, Ben briefed us all on our roles then it was all go. The helicopter took off and within minutes we got the call that she had been found, then darted and moments later we were running from the vehicles to help get Umbabat safely on her side.
The next 20 minutes were so focused, each of us on our particular job assisting the EA team to collect samples, take measurements, change the collar, monitor her breathing and keep her cool. It was such a polished operation. There was a sense of urgency and adrenalin while at the same time an undercurrent of calm purpose.
My assisting Robin over, I stepped back shaking with effort and emotion. Placing my hand on her back, her breathing slow and steady, the tears flowed. I had just experienced something so invasive and so intimate. Grieving its necessity but in the same breath overwhelmed with hope for her and her herd’s chances. Could she feel our energy of determination for her survival? Could she feel only our good intentions in the overwhelming smell of human around her?
All of us safely back in the vehicles, the wake-up was administered. A few moments of breath held. Then the exhale of relief as she got up and steadied herself. A low grumble of communication in the stillness and within minutes she was back with her herd.
Time for Joel to get us back to camp. We were quiet on the journey, each of us needing space to process what we had just experienced. Even now a couple of weeks later writing this account I am overcome with emotion from this experience. It will sit close with me always, I think.
The EA team will tell you from their research just how vital elephants are in our ecosystems – keystone species, umbrella species, ecosystem engineers.
There is such controversy around this, however. So often in this environment you will hear the other side of this story – elephants are destructive, dangerous and there are just too many.
If I can venture an opinion here. From my observations, this negativity around elephants is a human cop out. We are the ones that limit their space and restrict their movements. We are the ones that persecute them when they wander where they are not wanted. We are the ones who have lost touch with our Nature-connectedness.
It seems to me we can make way for elephants if we are willing to be creative, to be open minded, to have compassion and share pure space. This is what makes the work of the Elephants Alive team so profound. Science-based tools that support human-elephant coexistence. This is the sort of wildlife conservation I support with every fibre of my being 🖤