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Elephant Monitoring with LEO Africa – Hannes’ & Anja’s story

Hannes and Anja

Quietly, we sneak through the river bank grass. We stay close to each other and try to stay invisible in the green of the bush. The clumsy cameras around our necks with their long lenses do not make it any easier for us. With every move, we focus on staying silent, not stepping on dry branches and not getting caught by the thorns of the bushes. Is that rustling on the left a snake? The grunt on the right a hippo? And wasn’t a leopard seen here in the area just yesterday? With these thoughts we carefully look around, our hearts beating faster than just a few minutes ago in the car. Fortunately, the wind is favorable for us, but that can change any moment. Bright sunshine is ahead of us, whereas a thunderstorm brews up behind us. Dark clouds are coming closer and from time to time we hear thunder rumble in the distance. If we want to arrive dry at the camp we have to hurry, but the spectacle on the other side of the river attracts us more and more with every second. 

Six elephant bulls bathe and play in the river and visibly enjoy cooling off from the blazing afternoon sun. If something in the bush expresses pure joie de vivre, then it’s these grey giants in the water. They try to knock each other over, beating their tusks together and diving completely into the water to emerge at the next moment blowing a fountain towards the sky. Sometimes you even hear them blowing bubbles underwater. Is it possible to shoot good ID pictures here at all? Yes or no, either way, we enjoy the moment, just like the six big guys facing us. We each find comfortable seats in the grass from which to watch the show. Only now we realise how exhausted we are from the day in the bush, but we couldn’t be happier.

Although this event was certainly an outstanding one, we have had many unforgettable moments in the last three months with LEO. We, that's Anja and Hannes as Elephant Monitoring Assistants and Michael, our LEO Africa Field Guide, who takes us on elephant drives several times a week. We aim to shoot the best possible pictures of individual elephants and entire herds, which we then compare with our Elephant ID Kits. If we discover new elephants we create new ID Kits for them, or if we see that an elephant’s appearance has changed over time we make updates.

The perfect picture? With regard to our project that means an elephant mug shot: one picture from the front, one from the left and one from the right. Do the ears have holes or notches? Is a tusk missing or broken off? Such features help us to clearly identify the elephant and to distinguish it from others. Usually we capture several hundred pictures on a drive, which we then evaluate on the computer back at the camp. It’s a success when we can add a newbie to the register, since only about 200 of the more than 300 elephants living in the Park have been identified so far. We are now trying to focus on sub-adults and juveniles. These are more difficult to get clear pictures of and to distinguish from each other, compared to the adults who have scars and marks from a long life in the bush.

Unfortunately, our time here is coming to an end soon. In a few days we will hand over to a new Elephant Monitoring Assistant (Vesta, from Italy) who will continue to work on this project. We will certainly look forward to returning, perhaps this time as volunteers just like we did in October 2017 when our journey with LEO Africa started.

Take care,

Hannes and Anja