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Studying Elephants

One of the world's most famous elephant experts, Joyce Poole, is currently studying Gorongosa's elephants. She's identifying every individual, their age and gender, what family groups they belong to and where they go. Every elephant is an individual with a distinct personality and temperament, just like you. By knowing each elephant's unique story, we hope to make better-informed decisions about how to protect them.


We tracked Joyce down and asked her about her work:


How do you track elephants? I use all my senses and some brainpower to find elephants. When I head out to search for elephants I take into consideration the habitats I know they prefer, the distance to water and where I have seen them before. Elephants have routines just like the rest of us and they often follow a similar route for several days in a row. Families have "Home Areas," where they spend the majority of their time; males have "Bull Areas" where they spend time during the part of the year when they are not sexually active. 


Getting to know a population means learning their routines, their favorite places to be. Mind you, these are not small geographical locations I am speaking of. Once I get to these areas the real work begins - scanning the horizon, listening for their calls or the cracking of branches, searching for fresh tracks and even using my sense of smell. Some probably won't believe me, but when I am searching for elephants I often get the feeling, "there are no elephants here today," the air around me is simply empty of elephants, it lacks a certain energy. I am not a believer in the paranormal and have put this feeling down to being so tuned into elephants that I pick up on their presence - their low frequency calls, their smell, in unconscious ways.


How do you identify individual elephants? Identifying elephants isn't difficult, but it requires using powers of observation and it takes a bit of practice. There are many different characteristics that you can use to identify an elephant: its sex; its body size and shape; the length and configuration of the tusks; the size and shape of the ears; ear venation patterns; the notches, tears, holes in the ears. Notches, tears and holes in an elephant's ear, or the lack of them, are the most durable features, while tusks are prone to change over time - they grow, they break and they regrow. 


In Gorongosa a high percentage of elephants are without tusks, which makes them harder to distinguish from one another. ElephantVoices has developed eight educational modules  explaining the different terms we use to ID elephants (such as "scoop-notch" or "lobes curling out" or "flap-cut") and how to use these characteristics to identify the elephants.


Park visitors can help me and participate in their own elephant research by sharing their photos of Gorongosa's elephants with us.  Share your photo to contribute.


How do you tell the age of the elephants?  Elephants continue to grow in height and overall body size through most of their lives, making them easier to age than other species. It still takes a lot of practice to become good at it, though. Size categories correspond to rough age ranges. The size categories we use are: Calf (0-4 years), juvenile (5-9 years), small adult (10-19 years), medium adult (20-34) and large adult (35 years+). Up until several months of age elephants are small enough to squeeze under the belly of a very large adult female. Between 18 months and 2 years old the tusks are just visible beyond the lip, though, of course, not among those elephants who are tuskless! By three years of age a calf's tusks extend about 8 cm beyond the lip. Thereafter, tusk length and thickness taken together with the shape of the elephant's face, its head size in relation to its body size, and the individual's overall body size are used together to age an elephant. 


Some rules of thumb: Fully grown adult females are only half the weight of fully grown adult males, making females harder to age than males. Once females have reached their full height they seem to grow in length; old females often appear to have elongated, swayed backs. By age 17 males are as big as a large adult female, yet only half the weight of a large adult male. By age 35, as males are just entering their prime breeding age (~35-55), their foreheads have grown significantly larger and their tusks have become thicker, giving their faces an "hour-glass" shape.