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Hi-Tech is Helping Elephants


Have you ever tried to put a GPS-capable real-time tracking collar on an animal weighing in excess of five tonnes? Well, in Gabon, a country situated along the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, conservationists have started trying to use these devices on elephants native to the region. They track the animals and drug them before attaching the hi-tech gadgets in yet another bid to try to put a stop to poachers and the trafficking in ivory. As ivory is worth as much as a jackpot you’d win at a CAD casino, it’s easy to see why it is so sought after, and needs to be protected.

A Complicated Task

Each operation requires a team of between five and seven men, including trackers to guide the group through the dense jungle locations and locate the frequently shy animals, scouts to monitor them, and vets to ensure they stay safe. Jean-Baptiste Squarcini, the General Secretary of Gabon’s National Parks Agency, ANPN, has revealed that the men are tasked with fitting one or two GPS collars every day. He stated that the job was a very dangerous one, and that the men were being charged by elephants repeatedly.

Delicate Calculations are Required

Once an elephant has been spotted the vet will move ahead and will use a compressed air rifle to fire a dart containing etorphine, a semi-synthetic opioid roughly 1000x more powerful than morphine. Squarcini noted that too heavy a dose would kill the animal, and too weak a dose would see it escape. It is vital that the amount of the drug is perfect for each of the animals they wish to help. After the animal gets hit by the dart, the team has to ready itself to deal with a possible charge.

Giving Elephants a Hangover

After the elephant feels the effects of opioid and has gone to sleep, the team carry out a health check, collecting samples while a big black GPS collar gets fitted. The entire process takes roughly ten minutes, and the team then takes cover, occasionally climbing up into trees, before the elephant gets woken up with the injection of an antidote.

Squarcini described the animal awakening slightly stunned, like humans would from a bad hangover.

Danger Zones Can be Monitored

Veterinarians from South Africa assisted their local colleagues in fitting 20 elephants with these high-tech GPS collars in December 2017 in the Ivindo and Mwagne Park in the north-eastern part of Gabon. The neighbouring Minkebe Park is set to join the collar campaign this month. For a period of 45 days an ANPN team, led by Peter Morkel, a South African conservationist, will be traveling through the forests, covering around 20 kilometers daily.

The travels of some tagged elephants, including those named Junior, Syndie, Zara, Kate, and Boniface, appear on a map in an operation center for the ANPN located in the capital of Gabon, Libreville. A large screen shows the live satellite input from the GPS collars, and these have been programmed to sound a warning when the animals get too close to an inhabited area, or does not seem to be moving for too long, a possible indication that it is in danger.

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