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Saadani Elephant Project – Report August 2011
By the beginning of August most of the early burning programme undertaken by rangers is usually finished, with some green shoots already sprouting from the remaining moisture in the ground and the early morning dew. This year the park remained green well into August, with much of the tall grass from last year too green to burn, and many waterholes, which are usually dry by early August, carrying water throughout the month. This had a significant effect on the behaviour of Charlie, our newly collared bull, and the herds with which he moved.
We have witnessed some amazing displays of courting and mating throughout the month, with Charlie and two other Musth bulls attaching themselves to two breeding herds, and several more benign males, forming a regular mass of 60 plus individuals.
One herd of 23 cows and calves is new to us and we have called in the Margot group, the other is the Raggy (K5) group which has 34 cows and calves, and which we followed until March 2011 when Raggy’s collar fell off. It appears she was twelve months pregnant when we collared her in July 2010, and now has a 3-4 month old calf.
We have seen 7 mature bulls come and go from the total grouping, with Charlie, Cristiano, and the giant Colossus the only ones to remain throughout the month.
The readily available water supply has meant that the group have been able to stay in one small area throughout the month, following a very regular circuit, and providing easy access for observation. They spend most days holed up in thickets South of the Mligaji river, shaded and gently browsing, before setting off in the mid to late afternoon for the evening circuit of waterholes, and night time feeding. Four favourite waterholes became excellent spots to wait for their arrival and to watch the full soap opera of elephant life.
Colossus, who is the largest bull in the area, was clearly not in musth and stood aside whilst the much smaller Charlie and Cristiano moved among the cows mating on a regular basis. We were witness to some amazing displays of courtship, including trunk-twisting, fascinating displays behind small trees, and actual coupling.
The longer lasting waterholes across the entire park have certainly reduced the movement of all its resident elephants, and the pattern of Charlie’s movement in August reflects this. For the most part he followed the favourite short circuit described earlier, among the large gathering of over 60 animals. Four waterholes dominated the late afternoon and early evening movements, with various members of the group wallowing in one and drinking in the next. The musth bulls (Charlie and Cristiano) moved in the centre of the group, courting particular females, whilst the two much larger benign bulls (Colossus, and occasionally another unnamed) remained remarkably disinterested, highlighting how hierarchical conflict only becomes relevant when both animals are in musth. We did observe on several occasions senior bulls pushing out teen bulls who were just of an age to leave the main herd. This would normally be the work of the matriarch, but because both sexes spend so much more time together in Saadani due to limited range, the senior bulls appear to have taken over the task.
The last week of August finally saw the favoured waterholes finally begin to dry up, with the water turning muddy and not to the taste of elephants. The group started to move North, and start checking the traditionally longer lasting fresh water sources further North and West. With this movement, the group began to split up.
We are always looking for signs of movement West to see if we can establish signs of corridors now blocked by human activity. During August, Charlie twice moved 7-8km West of his comfort zone, around the old railway line, one time for 3 days. This may indicate the start of a route out of Saadani.
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