Counting the Tuli Elephants

Aug 1, 2008

Mission: Counting the Tuli Elephants
Date: 1 August 2008
Requesting organisation: Mashatu Game Reserve
Location: Mashatu Game Reserve, Central Limpopo River Valley
Pilot: Avroy Shlain

Participating in the total aerial count of the elephants within the Central Limpopo River Valley is becoming something of a regular annual event for The Bateleurs and one of our Director-pilots, Avroy Shlain.  Presented below is the report of the 2008 count, prepared by Jeanetta Selier, Resident Biologist at Mashatu Game Reserve.

Counting the Tuli Elephants, by Jeanetta Selier

“Elephants are perceived to be a keystone species that determine the structure and composition of their habitats. This contention has in turn led to claims that elephants at high numbers pose a threat to biodiversity in the conservation areas in which they occur.  However, little is known on how elephant populations are limited and how co-existence between elephants and trees was achieved in the past. In order to understand elephant and tree dynamics, a reliable understanding of what environmental and social factors influence elephant movements and the occupancy of different habitats is needed.

The Central Limpopo River Valley is a diverse area covering three different countries namely Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe and forms part of the proposed Shashe-Limpopo Trans Frontier Conservation Area. The area has an amazing history with elephants nearly disappearing from the system in the 1900’s, as a result of excessive hunting and the ivory trade, and only returning to the area in large numbers after the establishment of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in the late 1960’s. Early estimates of the population in the 1970’s indicated 1200 elephants in the region.

Changes observed in the structure and composition of the habitat in the area as a result of the increased number of elephants let to the initiation of the Central Limpopo River Valley elephant research project in 1999.  This is an ongoing research program.

A total aerial count of the Tuli elephants was conducted on the 2nd and 3rd of August 2008. Due to the political situation in Zimbabwe during the time, only the Tuli Circle was counted and not the section along the Limpopo River within Zimbabwe. This is a pity as a group of approximately 150 –200 elephants roam through this area and form an integral part of the Tuli elephant population.

Over the two-day period the distribution and numbers of elephants in the Central Limpopo Valley were determined by dividing the region into three counting blocks based on the possibility of crossover of elephants between blocks during the survey. Flying at a speed of around 90 knots and at an altitude of 500 feet, 1 km wide adjacent belt transects were searched for elephants. Whenever an individual or group was encountered a GPS location was taken and the numbers counted.

A total of 1352 elephants were counted in the entire study area. This number is comparable to previous counts conducted within the study area since 2000 and within the margins of error for counting such a large number of elephants from the air. As with the previous counts, the highest number of elephants was observed within the Botswana section of the study area and mainly concentrated westwards along the Tuli Block from the Motloutse River towards Baines Drift (700 elephants) and within the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (524 elephants). A total of 95 elephants were counted within the boundaries of Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa. Yet again, no elephants were observed within the entire Tuli Circle (Zimbabwe) during the count. A total of five counts have been conducted so far since 2000 and during only two of these counts were any elephants observed in the approximately 45000ha area in Zimbabwe (63 in 2000 and 3 in 2007). No elephants were counted around Letsibogo Dam in the Bobirwa sub district within Botswana.

Data from the five aerial counts indicates that the population within the Central Limpopo Valley, at least for the winter months, appears to be stable. However, elephants move extensively throughout the study area depending on the resource availability at different times of the year. The distribution of the elephant population is mainly determined by the presence of humans and human activity, fences and large river systems. At least four distinct core areas can be identified for the mid to late winter period within the study areas, suggesting the possibility of different clans or bond groups.

Data obtained from these counts combined with ongoing fieldwork will assist in a clearer understanding of the distribution and movements of the elephants and the social and environmental factors that might influence it and so get one step closer to solving the contentious issue of elephant management in Southern Africa.

There were many people and organisations that assisted in ensuring the success of this survey. Naledi hosted the survey teams;  staff in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana, SANParks in South Africa and the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority assisted in obtaining the necessary permits;  Pete le Roux of Mashatu Game Reserve arranged the aviation fuel, while Dennis Summers and his team were always ready to assist with the refuelling of the planes. Thulani and the firemen at Limpopo Valley Airfield ensured safe flying and takeoff and landings.  The Bateleurs, Wings4Wildlife, SANParks and the Northern Tuli Game Farmers Association provided aeroplanes, pilots and avgas. The navigators and counters donated their time and expertise. All of them helped together to realise a better understanding of the elephant numbers and distribution within the study area. A special word of thanks to Raymond Steyn, Alan Parnass and Bateleurs pilot Avroy Shlain for their superb flying.”

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Some of the Tuli survey subjects

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