Meet Abu's Wild Herd

Oct 9, 2015 Conservation
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As well as providing guests with incredible elephant interaction experiences, Abu Camp’s more significant reason for being is to operate as a centre of excellence for elephant conservation and research and be ambassadors of these critical issues...

While the Abu herd which lives in the camp allows researchers and guests alike to observe and even participate in the daily life of elephants, it is perhaps the elephants which have been introduced into the Okavango that are providing the most valuable insights.

The Abu herd themselves are only confined to their specially designed boma at night, and for much of each day they are free to roam at will in the bush. On the rare occasions that an elephant has been determined to leave the Abu herd (as was the case with Abu Junior in 2013) it has been allowed to do so.

Introducing elephants back into the wild
As well as the more permanent members of the Abu herd, a number of other elephants have spent time at Abu Camp. Often they are the survivors of traumatic events, such as the culls which used to take place to control elephant numbers in the Kruger National Park, or they have been rescued from exploitative situations.

These experiences can leave deep and lasting scars on an animal as intelligent and sensitive as an elephant. Once at Abu Camp, they are slowly and gently prepared for an ultimate re-introduction into the wild, through gradual assimilation with other elephants (the Abu herd has a long history of accepting “waifs and strays”) and increasing familiarity with the habitats of the Okavango Delta.

It was realised that tracking these elephants would not only allow researchers to monitor their wellbeing and their integration into wild herds, but would also provide insights into the movements and habitat requirements of the meta herds of northern Botswana – Africa’s largest elephant herds. In 2011, Elephants Without Borders (EWB) was asked to undertake this monitoring.

Since early 2002, Abu Camp has successfully introduced eight African elephants (three cows and five bulls) into the Okavango Delta, with the full support of the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP). All the elephants were fitted with GPS collars prior to their introduction into the wild and satellite tracking, in conjunction with field monitoring, provides vital information about their behaviour as they integrate into the broader Botswana elephant community. The bulls tend to wander more widely, while Nandipa and her patchwork herd have settled within the Abu Concession, and quite often pass close to or even through the camp.
The insights and understanding obtained in this way will enable Abu Camp to guide other similar projects looking to release elephants into the wild, as well as shed light on how the elephants have adapted to their new environment.

Meet the Wild Herd
A number of the released elephants have joined up to form a unique wild matriarchal herd – further evidence of the deep and lasting bonds which elephants share. Perhaps the ultimate seal of approval for the release programme has come from the elephants themselves, as several of the released females have gone on to give birth and rear their calves in the wild.
Nandipa, a female released in 2003, had her third wild-born calf in May 2013. This newest calf joined her mother and older siblings Ntongeni and Nima, alongside Gikka and Naya, in the Abu “wild herd”. Thus a new, cohesive and fully-functioning matriarchal herd was formed by the elephants themselves.
Nandipa and Gikka were both members of the original “brat pack” of elephants orphaned in a culling operation. At a young age they had already experienced loss and grief and so their rehabilitation was always going to be a delicate process.

Nandipa was the first of the Abu herd’s female elephants to be released. During her time in the Abu herd, she had an uneasy relationship with Cathy, matriarch of the herd, preferring to spend as much time as she could with big Benny, the floppy-eared giant. On her release she happily mixed with “the boys” and joined them in exploring the Okavango. Since then, Nandipa has given birth to three calves including a strapping bull named Ntongine and the latest youngster born in 2013. She is sometimes seen in the vicinity of the camp showing off her family herd.

Gikka and her calf, Naya, two members of Abu's Wild Herd
                                                                                    Gikka and Naya pop by Abu Camp for a visit

Before Gikka gave birth to Naya, she insisted on sharing duties with Shireni in looking after Pula when he was a baby, constantly making mud and sand baths for him to play in. Gikka has a great love of water and her short tusks set very close to her trunk enable her to perform amazing “acrobatic” feats in the lagoons and pools of the Okavango.

Gikka’s daughter, Naya, born in March 2003, developed into a sweet-natured and very lovable young elephant, who used to be inseparable from Pula, before the latter’s release. Naya, whose name means “To Give”, was a relatively delicate youngster and another Abu Camp favourite.

Both Gikka and her calf Naya were successfully introduced into the wild in July 2011. Within a few days they had joined up with their long-time friend Nandipa who by then had been at large for eight years. The two large cows and their four offspring have cemented the close bonds needed to maintain their own unique herd.

In August 2013 Gikka too had a calf in the wild. As the gestation period for an African elephant is 22 months, this means she was covered in the first month of her living as a wild elephant. This latest birth has increased the “wild” Abu herd to seven and the new arrival is another milestone in the successful elephant introduction programme.

Elephant Research
Elephants Without Borders (EWB), under the leadership of Dr. Mike Chase, a San Diego Zoo Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, is committed to finding answers to challenging conservation issues. Paul Allen, of Microsoft founding fame, has been a deeply committed supporter of its work and envisages a far-reaching elephant conservation programme which through the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, is now becoming a reality.

EWB operates from a custom-built research station in NG26, the Abu Concession. Built with support from the Foundation, the field research station serves as a “living laboratory”, where researchers can advance the knowledge and understanding of elephants. Particular topics of interest are the movements and stress levels of both the Abu herd and the wild herd, and extending beyond this immediate focus, the home ranges and population dynamics of elephants across northern Botswana and beyond.

The ultimate goal is to understand the changing habitat and spatial needs of elephants on a macro scale, both now and into the future, so that informed conservation management decisions can be made and potential human/elephant conflict avoided, allowing Africa’s two most significant keystone species to enjoy a more harmonious co-existence than has previously been the case.

The Abu herd provides living proof of how humans and elephants can live harmoniously side by side in mutual affection and respect. Is it too much to hope that this can be achieved on a much wider scale?

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By Nick Galpine

The call of the wild – and too many BBC wildlife documentaries – persuaded Nick to abandon the smoky steelworks of his childhood for the clear waters and immense skies of the Okavango Delta. Arriving at Mombo on the same truck as the first reintroduced white rhinos in late 2001, Nick soon realised (as did the rhinos) that this truly was heaven and earth. With the ashes of his return ticket to the UK cooling in a campfire somewhere on Chief’s Island, Nick spent the next several years helping monitor the first wild rhinos in Botswana in a decade. Several years of camp management across the Wilderness portfolio subsequently ensued but by early 2014 it was time to check out a different kind of jungle and Nick relocated to Johannesburg to focus on marketing, and pursue his interest in the manoeuvres of the world’s finest taxi drivers.

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