RHCRU finds more Inspiration for Conservation at ZACC

At the end of January, several RHCRU representatives had the opportunity to attend ZACC, the Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The intent of the gathering was to inspire, connect, and act, which accentuated the ZACC mission statement to promote collaboration between zoos and aquariums and local, national, and international field conservation efforts. Each day was filled with engaging presentations, celebrating not only the successes of individual conservation programs, but also highlighting the impact of partnerships between zoos, aquariums, and field researchers. More importantly, the presenters offered resources and advice for attending organizations to set up similar partnerships, educational programs, and conservation projects. One of the most intriguing aspects of the presentations was their focus on lesser known or popular endangered species, such as the slow loris, tapir, Hirola (Hunter’s Hartebeest) and Azuay stubfoot toad. The conference also included a visit to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, arguably the most memorable activity. Conference attendees were invited not only to stroll the grounds, but to also take part in behind-the-scenes tours. These unique experiences allowed conference goers to observe training sessions for various species, gain knowledge of the zoo’s impressive gardens, learn about enclosure construction and enrichment, and participate in panel discussions on important conservation efforts. During this time, several RHCRU members watched the Jacksonville handlers work with their African elephants. Like our RHCRU elephants, the zoo animals are trained to lift their feet onto stools for foot care and present handlers with various body parts for inspection or veterinary care (ie. ears, teeth, or feet). Such behaviors are vital to ensuring the health needs of the animals are met and also offer an excellent enrichment opportunity for them. After watching the session, RHCRU Director Sean was impressed, commenting on the professionalism, calmness, and responsiveness of the handlers and animals, traits which are also at the core of RHCRU’s training program. The zoo visit ended with a poster display session, at which Sean and Elizabeth Berkeley presented RHCRU’s many research initiatives and networked with potential collaborators. Overall, the week was insightful and thought-provoking. “For me, it was a mind-blowing experience to see a whole bunch of zoos, facilities, and organizations from around the world coming together to do something for conservation. While some of the statistics were disheartening, they also invigorated a sense of action to those attending, especially because so many large organizations were offering their help to the smaller non-profits, who often work quietly out of the public eye” reflected Sean. At the end of the conference, the entire group felt inspired by the powerful messages heard throughout the week and excited for the potential opportunities arising from RHCRU’s attendance.

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From Primates to Elephants: Dr. Braccini Slade researches Laterality and Feed Ecology

Dr. Stephanie Braccini Slade is the Vice President of Living Collections at Birmingham Zoo in Alabama. She has been working with the RHCRU herd since 2016, performing laterality and feed ecology studies. Her tusk and trunk laterality study examines the directional preferences in elephants, similar to handedness in humans. Elephants have tusk preferences for digging, lifting, and torque, which can be determined by looking at the length of each tusk (the shorter tusk is the dominant one). Dr. Braccini Slade’s experiment was designed to draw out the strongest lateral preference using an enclosed box. Each animal was given the equal chance to extract food from the center of the box, a task that became gradually more difficult, to engage more trunk precision and fine motor skills. Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that each elephant does express a dominant side. In October, Dr. Braccini Slade completed the final stage of her feed ecology and adapted feeding strategies study. Chova, our 20-year-old male bull, inspired this research through his unique feeding strategy. Because of an injury, Chova is missing the tip of his trunk, preventing him from stripping leaves by wrapping the fingers of the trunk around a branch and moving outward. Instead, he wraps the mid-section of his trunk around the branch to strip off leaves, which results in significantly lower feeding success. Dr. Braccini-Slade’s team observed the elephants feeding in the bush each season over the last year and recorded their behaviors. This film will be analyzed to discover the feeding success rates for all feeding strategies used, the social feeding behaviors compared to solitary behaviors, and how various strategies have a more destructive impact on the natural landscape.

Dr. Braccini Slade’s interest in elephants began the first time she saw a wild elephant during a trip to Uganda in 2007, when she was “instantly captivated by its size, majesty, and the complex social interactions of the herd.” However, her interest in their behavior sparks from her passion for great apes. In 2015, Dr. Braccini Slade first started her work with African elephants and realized how primate like they were, from their cognitive skills and memory, to their social structure, including play behavior and the formation of bachelor groups. “Every time I watch elephants I walk away with more questions about their cognition, behavior, and social interactions.”  Her curiosity led to her recently completed laterality experiment with the RHCRU elephants. “For chimpanzees, and other primate species, we test their hand preferences using the “tube task,” a simple method of putting peanut butter or another food item in the middle of a long tube. They use one hand to hold the tube and the other hand to extract the food item. The hand they use to extract the peanut butter is then deemed the dominant hand.” Her elephant experiment used this concept to demonstrate the similarities between elephants and primates. The expression of laterality has a deeper impact, however. Dr. Braccini-Slade sees this trait as a way to boost conservation efforts by strengthening the bond humans feel towards animals. “Over my 17 years of studying mammal behavioral laterality (i.e. handedness) it’s always been a topic that makes people see animals in a different light, one that highlights how they are “just like us”. While there are so many approaches to conversation one that seems the best utilized and successful in non-range countries is getting the public to understand and appreciate wildlife, and what better way than to understand and relate to the individuals and species as a whole.” Dr. Braccini Slade hopes that her feeding ecology study will also benefit conservation, although it has more of an applied implication. “Chova is a model for how natural adaptations to injuries can occur successfully, which can better provide a model for how to train younger elephants with similar injuries be efficient and effective in their adapted feeding strategies” and the broader analysis can be used to maintain elephant populations with less destruction.

Working with the RHCRU elephants is quite a different experience from working with the elephants at the Birmingham Zoo. “At the Birmingham Zoo we only work elephants in a protected contact setting. This means that humans and animals never share space; rather we are always separated by a physical barrier (mesh, bollards, fences, etc.).” RHCRU’s elephants, on the other hand, interact with the public and researchers through free contact, which allows for different training and observational opportunities. Additionally, the RHCRU elephants are free feeding, and therefore depend less on humans than the zoo animals (which made them ideal for her feed ecology study). “I like to think that the elephants back in Alabama act as ambassadors for their more wild counterparts, aiding us in teaching guests about elephant behavior, conservation, and biology. Through their interaction and role in zoos we are able to spark passion, interest, and action to protect these vulnerable and dynamic animals.” Dr. Braccini-Slade also mentions that field work, even in a small town with power and internet, presents a different environment than the zoo and can cause challenges. “I’ve had equipment break, power or connection cables disappear, and all sorts of strange equipment malfunctions. Field research also requires flexibility to methodology, timing, and everything that you thought you were going to do.” Fortunately, the RHCRU elephants were fairly cooperative, and the only hiccups Dr. Braccini Slade faced revolved around the elephants wanting to play instead of eat while out in the bush, or flipping the box to obtain their food reward instead of performing the task as intended. Having to be flexible in her data collection schedule, however, allowed Dr. Braccini-Slade to observe the scenery and wildlife of Bela Bela, as well as the impact of the animals on tourists. “Listening to people during their elephant interactions is heartwarming and entertaining; from the laugher of children to adults learning something new.”  It also let her experience the beauty of the bond of our herd, best demonstrated when they are out in the bush demonstrating their natural behavior. “My most memorable moments have been watching Chova interact with his “kids” Zambezi and Bela. Be it while feeding in the bush or playing in the water, he is always patient and playful. A close second was a morning I was following the herd and filming their feeding behaviors when Nuanedi and Chishuru had this massive play session. They were vocalizing and running and pushing each other, so much so that Chishuru sat down at one point and Nuanedi was pushing him in the bum with her tusks. It was so cute to watch these big animals play just like my kids.” While Dr. Braccini-Slade may be a primate girl at heart, her passion for elephants and dedication to their conservation is evident in her hard work with the RHCRU herd and her devotion to deepening our understanding of these magnificent animals while spreading her fondness of the species to others. 

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Lighting up Vingerkraal: Conrad Mitchell and Daniel Taylor

We began our journey in South Africa with a tour of its Mpumalanga province complete with game drives in Kruger National Park and an interaction with tamed elephants. In our first days there, we saw wild rhinos, ate dinner next to grazing hippos, and touched a three-ton bull elephant. These exciting experiences set the tone for the rest of our trip. A drive southwest landed us at Nicama Lodge, our housing for the next six weeks. Our wonderful host mother, Magda, made sure we wanted for nothing while we were there, and her excellent cooking along with cable and wi-fi quickly made us feel at home. Though wonderful, going back to Nicama sometimes proved difficult as our place of work was Adventures with Elephants. There our office was a veranda overlooking a watering hole where giraffe, baboons, and wild impala frequented, and our co-workers were seven loveable elephants and a sassy meerkat. Watching the ellies drink as the sun set across the watering hole and petting Bela, the playful newborn, were awe inspiring experiences. In our downtime, we were able to assist in research relating to the olfaction and measurement of these creatures. These moments alone were enough to justify our 15-hour flight for the purpose of our project.

Our project? Bring solar electricity to Vingerkraal, a community of 250+ families displaced from the bordering country of Namibia. With the near-complete autonomy we had on the project, we felt the blunt of every setback (there were many) and the full satisfaction of success when we finished. We got right to work. After analyzing various commercial solar units and building one from scratch we decided to collaborate with a local company called Sunlight4Life. After negotiating, they offered to supply us with small but rugged solar units with up to five lights and a USB charging port. In consulting missionaries working in the village, we determined that in addition to distributing these units, we would also need to teach the community members how they work. The pursuit of this goal made our project infinitely more rewarding than simply handing out solar panels. We devised two separate classes. In one, we would explain the basis of electricity. In the second, we would teach the community to solder together electrical connections, and we would walk them through the construction of their own solar units. We developed and tested this curriculum-- making a model that analogized flowing water and electric current and contacting Sunlight4Life to discuss getting our units in pieces that the community could conceivably solder together. After determining the best way to teach, we had to tackle the problem of ensuring that everyone got a unit. We had no census and no way to account for people so we went house to house taking names and numbers. This was especially difficult as there are no streets and no organization of homes. After budgeting we determined that every household in which people lived would receive a solar system. In all, we would have to build and explain solar units to 260 people even though we did not speak their native dialect. We couldn’t do it by ourselves, and luckily we didn't need to. During our census, we met a group of amazing young adults that lived in the community. Their drive, selflessness and leadership potential was apparent on first impression, but we were blown away by the way that they rose to the occasion. After seeing us teach the electricity class a few times and two tutorials on soldering, they were nearly self-sufficient. We devised an assembly line of check-in, explanation, and soldering for them to follow, and we sat back. With our guidance, they taught everyone how to make their own solar unit. With their help, we accomplished what we set out to do. The community now has clean electricity.

The difficulties we experienced were well worth it though they were substantial. Primarily there was the problem of getting materials. Due to several miscommunications and paperwork issues, our solar unit shipment arrived four days before we left South Africa. Luckily, we had been preparing for many weeks, and we were ready. Regardless, we had to work quickly to organize everything. We rallied our teachers and translators, and for the next four days, we operated at full capacity. Initially, they handled the teaching while we facilitated. Circumstances like our tools falling off our truck or separate research pursuits took our attention away from the project. While individually teaching every member of the community to solder, our people also distributed parts, rationed out dwindling materials, and controlled a steady flow of people clamoring to get what they came for. The way in which they took leadership over their own community was very satisfying. Equally satisfying was the knowledge that our project opened the door for growth in the community. All of this made for a somber goodbye. Our efforts sparked an interest in science, empowered the younger generation, and simply gave students the ability to do their homework at night. From our interactions with the wildlife to our wonderful accommodations to the unforgettable relationships we formed with Vingerkraal, this project has been a great experience. We are deeply grateful for the opportunity, and we would take it again.

The challenges of conservation: A word by Katrina Leser

Hello, my name is Katrina Leser and I am a student at North Carolina State University, USA. Last semester, I was given the amazing opportunity to intern with the Rory Hensman Conservation and Research Unit. My main objective was to help establish an elephant DNA lab. With help from the National Zoological Gardens and the Forensic Sciences Institute of North Carolina State University, RHCRU was able to lay the foundation for the lab. The aim of the project is to create a comprehensive genetic landscape of the elephant population in South Africa. Not only can this information be used to give landowners insight into their herds for management decisions, but also as a tool for law enforcement to use in future criminal prosecutions. Furthermore, researchers interested in elephant genetics and conservation will have limited access to the database, allowing the information to contribute to our overall understanding of the species.

During my time in South Africa, I worked mainly on the project in an administrative and organizational capacity; writing grant and permit applications, reaching out to elephant owners, organizing equipment, and acting as a liaison between the three organizations involved. I also collected the first samples. Working on this project has opened my eyes to the challenges of conservation. While most countries struggle with increasing their elephant populations, many South African reserves face the opposite problem: an overpopulation of animals. This leads to a large amount of damage to the vegetation which in turn threatens the habitat of other animals, including endangered species. Our hope is that this project will offer a potential solution, providing a scientific approach for reserves to manage their elephants populations. For example, they can use the genetic information to choose which animals should be administered contraceptives or which ones may be candidates for relocation. Most importantly, by increasing our knowledge of the elephant population in South Africa and working closely with those who care for the animals daily, we can better help preserve them for the future. 

Student Spotlight: Samantha Jeffrey

Hi, my name is Samantha Jeffrey and I am a 2nd year masters student in textile engineering at NCSU. In 2014/2015, I was assigned the "elephant" collar" phase II as my senior design project with David Harris and Laure Koepnick as my textile team members (we were also partnered with an electrical engineering team). 

Our task was to take the previous year's elephant collar prototype and further create a collar that was both "elephant proof" and had the electrical components integrated, to help reduce the human elephant conflicts. When we were in South Africa, in March of 2015, we came with 2 collars. One collar was to test the durability of the material selection and construction, where no electronic components were housed inside the collar; and the second collar had all of the electronic components integrated into the collar; however, the collar was not durable due to the fact that we needed access to the electronics and we were testing out different electronic housing units.

The ability to go to South Africa and work with the elephants, first hand, was extremely important to the project for a few different reasons. The ability to work with the elephants gave the textile team the ability to see how the collar fit on the elephant, as well as how the collar and elephant interacted through balance, weight and the shapes of the components. On the other hand, being up and personal with the elephants truly gave an extra push to the purpose of the project. The elephant interactions and seeing them in their natural habitat was much more meaningful and powerful than anything you can see on TV (or Netflix), which was further motivation to truly fine tune the collar after prototype testing. 

The goal of the elephant collar is to aid in reducing the human elephant conflicts between local villages and wild elephant migration patterns. In many of these local villages, their sole financial means and food source rely on the crops that they grow; however, many of these crops are being raided by elephants, due to their natural instincts to find food. The conflict has resulted in villages fighting back by killing many of the elephants that are intruding, yet when the elephants feel threatened, they fight back, which has caused the death of many humans as well. The collar would not solve the human elephant conflict, but it would be one tool in the toolbox that could help reduce the conflict, to reduce the deaths of both humans and elephants, as well as to save the food and revenue sources for these struggling villages. 

Although the goal of the elephant collar project was to help save the lives of elephants and impoverish villages, I can safely say that this project saved me and my life. I won't get into details, but I hit a "rock bottom" moment around the same time that I was assigned to the project. Once I hit that rock bottom moment, I knew the only direction that I could move was up. Some days were much harder than others, but as time went on, I began to learn more about the impact that this collar would bring to both the elephants and the people who are being affected, and my motivation drove me to keep my head down and work hard towards this goal of reducing human-elephant conflicts. The elephant collar gave me something to work on, and to keep me focused on a goal during the tough times that I encountered. In addition, the hard work resulted in the team going to South Africa and to experience these animals, first hand, which is something I cannot even find the words to describe how incredible the experience was. If it was not for this project and the impact that would result from the completed collar, I am certain that I would not be the person I am today. 

In addition, as the project went on, I became increasingly more interested in elephants. When I was not working on the elephant collar, or other classwork, I turned to "doodling", where I began to play around with drawing elephants. After the completion of my first "elephant doodle", I showed my boss, which resulted in him printing the design onto a woven fabric, where he then hung the tapestry on the wall of the lab. Towards the end of my senior year, a department head at the college saw the design and instantly offered to sponsor me through graduate school. So I can safely say that if it was not for the elephant collar, I would not be where I am today, finishing up my masters degree.

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Welcome!

Welcome, or as our elephants would say in Shona, Mauya! Here you can find all things RHCRU and elephant, including updates on our current research and publications, testimonials from students and interviews with our researchers. Our blog is dedicated to educating fellow elephant lovers about the current problems facing Africa’s wildlife and sharing our successes  and failures with you. We however hope that this blog runs deeper than current events and offers you a personal connection with our staff and elephants. As I’m sure you have read on our main site, RHCRU’s vision is all about holistic conservation of elephants, as well as other wildlife in South Africa, by adding value to the animals we treasure so dearly. We, however, strive to do so much more. The passion that encompasses the minds and hearts of our researchers reaches deeper than just science. We strive to make the world better, not just for the elephants, but for people as well. Whether working with the local communities to find solutions to make their daily lives simpler, or enriching the lives of young students by working with them on their projects, we strive to share our love of elephants with the world, to start a spark of conservation in the hearts of many, so that we, as a whole, may work together to protect these magnificent creatures. Conservation is only possible if it becomes a global goal, and we invite you to become a part of the challenge. Maybe we can even inspire you to join our research team or start your own conservation or community project.

For our first blog entry, we found it only fitting to introduce you to our elephants, as they are the stars of our organization. First and foremost, Chova, the oldest and biggest of our elephants, is also the dominant bull of our herd. Currently standing at 2.8 meters, he proudly watches over his family in the bush. Gentle and kind, he has a weak spot for his daughter Bela, who can often be found running between his legs, vying for his attention (which she undoubtedly gets). Mussina, Bela’s mother, is the matriarch of the herd, despite being the youngest adult female. Her sweet nature is apparent in the way she cares for her young calf, constantly checking on her with the tip of her trunk and ensuring Zambezi, our older calf, doesn’t get too rough with her. That doesn’t stop Bela and Zambezi, who are quite playful, from wrestling with each other in the mud, though. Despite their young age, intelligence shines in their eyes, and Bela and Zambezi learn quickly from their elders. Zambezi’s mother, Shan, is our oldest female, and the first to have a calf at our reserve. She is an independent elephant with a love for all things food, especially citrus and game cubes. Nuanedi, our 18 year old female, is the watchful aunt of Zambezi and Bela, and can usually be found overseeing the youngsters playing. Unique in the fact that she has only one tusk, her quirky personality and character make her a delightful elephant.  Last, but definitely not least, is Chishuru, our 21-year-old bull. A typical younger bull, he is the jokester of the group. In the summer he loves to swim, ducking and diving deep under the water to roll in the mud at the bottom of the dam.

Each of our elephants came from private game farms in South Africa where they had been labelled as “problem animals” and destined to be culled (selective killing of animals for management purposes). Once they arrived on our farm, they formed a new herd, and their close bond is apparent. They never stray far from each other, and if they do accidentally become separated, they immediately re-join in a series of rumbles and trumpets. The calves are watched over carefully, and kept in the center of the herd as the family moves through the bush. The close bond between the elephants, however,  was perhaps best demonstrated when Chova injured the tip of his trunk, disabling him from eating on his own. During that time, Mussina fed him branches, gently placing each into his mouth, in perfect position for him to chew. True role models for how sentient beings should treat one another, watching them interact with one another can melt anyone’s heart. Now they are helping us save more elephants like them, by teaching us about their species through close contact and observation.