Deep in a forest in Gabon, a giant wakes from his slumber and rises groggily to his feet. Still suffering the after-effects of anaesthetic, he takes a few moments to steady the wobbles and get his bearings.
It doesn't take long, though, to notice something is afoot – perhaps it's the lingering scent of humans and the glimpse of a camera casing, combined with that unpleasant post-anaesthetic fuzz. And that's when he explodes into action, a rapid, bone-breaking charge to express precisely what he thinks of the privacy intrusion. Luckily, field cameras are made of strong stuff!
Gabon has around 40,000 forest elephants living in the vast rainforests that cover much of the country. This camera-shy male is one of them – and he's just been fitted with a tracking collar by a team working with Save the Elephants.
Gabon's elephants are being relentlessly poached for their ivory by desperate gangs, and tracking collars are just one of the strategies conservationists employ to protect the animals.
The collars can provide a wealth of data. Researchers and conservationists can remotely follow herds or individuals, understanding their movements and migrations. They can also provide up-to-date location data via GPS, and even measure an animal's heart rate if the collar is fitted with accelerometers. If something stresses the animal out, researchers who are monitoring it will know in an instant.
This is where Save the Elephants comes in. The charity has been at the forefront of tracking elephants since its founder, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, spearheaded the use of radio collars on elephants in the 1990s. The group runs projects across Africa, inspiring efforts to protect the iconic mammals from the constant threat of the ivory trade.
As the poachers step up their game, and the crime organisations driving them on become more sophisticated, Save the Elephants must in turn respond with improved technology and strategy.
Minkébé National Park in northern Gabon has been of particular focus in recent years. An area the size of Belgium, it was once home to tens of thousands of forest elephants, and still contains a large proportion of Gabon's total population. Sadly, intensive poaching between 2002 and 2011 is thought to have claimed the lives of over 10,000 Minkébé elephants.
But the fight against poachers goes on. Gabon's national parks agency has since increased its presence, stemming the alarming population losses: a battalion of 100 trained eco-guards now patrols Minkébé, supported by information provided by elephant collaring and monitoring projects.
Elsewhere in Africa, elephants and the ivory trade are also in the spotlight. Just last week, the largest-ever stockpile of seized ivory and rhino horn was publicly burned in Kenya. The cache amounted to around 100 tonnes – eleven enormous pyres of piled tusks and horns.
Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, lit the first pyre, saying: "This will send an absolutely clear message that the trade in ivory must come to an end and our elephants must be protected. I trust that the world will join us to end the horrible suffering of our herds and save our elephants for future generations.”
As for Minkébé, it remains a remote and challenging location for conservationists, as are most of Gabon's rainforests – but the tracking and real-time monitoring technology that's being carefully placed around the necks of anaesthetised elephants is helping. Ultimately, though ivory remains a highly valuable commodity in some parts of the world, the data provided by thousands of tracking collars could instead be absolutely priceless.
Top header image: janhamlet, Flickr