Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Secret Lives of Elephants

How weird is this? I was busy redoing an important chapter, when I noticed in the information I have been given, the mention of a National Parks HQ up in North West Gokwe. I figured out that this had to be the Hostes Nicolle Institute for Wildlife Research. Well one thing led to another, but first look at this extract from another chapter which was written entirely from memory –

I think that Alan rather liked being my teacher. School outings were great fun and very educational. Not only that, the scenery was stunning. The natives seemed cheerful enough and waved enthusiastically as we tootled along. Being paid to play tourist was certainly up there amongst my favourite ways to earn money by doing the littlest as possible. Ah, this was the life. On the downside, we didn’t have a tape deck in the Landy. Bit of a bummer. I just had to imagine the chords of the Out of Africa main theme, ‘I had a farm in Africa, till the Gooks stole it’, soaring to the heavens as we zipped through the game reserve, past herds of elephants, kudus and the occasional lions. All I needed now was a wicked wench and a chilled glass of vodka, lime and lemonade, served to me by a waiter wearing white gloves over black hands, to make my life fulfilled.

On one of these safaris, weather permitting, I met National Parks Head Ranger, Tony and his wife. This slightly built character was in charge of the 2000 square kilometre (772 square miles) Chirisa National Park. This was a place of undisturbed beauty of miombo and mopane trees scattered between the bush scrub.  Tony had been there almost three years and loved his job with a passion. He had to - this place was about as remote as it could get. At the park headquarters, Hostess Nichole, there was a tiny clique of White folk, with a few foreign scientists working on several projects in well-equipped laboratories.
To get to the complex we had crossed the Sengwa River gorge. The concrete bridge was tiny; barely the length of the Landrover, but below, the river had cut a deep and wide chasm into the soft surrounding rock, creating almost a tunnel with a narrow slit open to the sky. From one of the scientists I was to learn that one group had come all the way from America to study the place due to an unknown species of bats that lived there. All this was incredibly interesting stuff. From another of these dedicated academics I was showed the handmade fibreglass collars with imbedded transmitters that would be attached around elephant’s necks. By triangulating the signal they had been plotting the route and distance travelled by the herds through the park.
I spotted a couple of young Whites amongst the scattered sheds but they would have nothing to do with us. Alan explained they were Americans on some sort of aid project and insisted on working for the same rate of pay as the Blacks. We police were considered bad guys by these Yanks, and I considered them idiots for working for a buck a day.

You can make out Gokwe TTL boundaries. Where the bottle neck is, draw a straight line across. The south was BSAP Que Que Rural area. The massive lump north is where me and few lads did the business.

Now it seems I have spelt the name of the place wrong for a start. No big deal, but whilst checking some facts with Nigel Triggs, I sent him the above snippet and he came up with a name – Rowan Martin. This was the man I met in charge of the elephant research. It also turns out that his brother, Patch Martin, joined the BSAP! Now armed with a name I go a’lookin and there isn’t much, but I find out this –

The Government helped in the establishment on a 40 000 ha site in Chirisa Game Reserve at Sengwa Gorge of the Hostes Nicolle Institute for Wildlife Research and, on completion, this complex will consist of laboratories and research facilities that will be among the most modern in Southern Africa.

The above snippet I found on a fascinating blog called Our Rhodesian Heritage. Well worth a peeps here.

I also discovered that Hostes Nicholle was in fact the Interior Minister. He arranged for the funding and I guess the place was built in the early ‘70s. The next problem is that there are in fact two park/reserves next to each other. Chirisa is called these days a safari area, which means people can go there and shoot animals. The other, separated by a wire fence, is the Chizarira National Park. The actual so called western border of Gokwe Tribal Trust Land (as it was known at the time), follows through Chirisa Game Park, as I now believe it was called then, and follows up the entire eastern boundary of Chizarira. Now, running through Chirisa is the Sengwa River. This river is mentioned many times in my memoir. The Google map doesn’t show it well, but it starts just south of Gokwe village, runs due east for about a hundred kms, then turns 90 degrees north for about 200 more kms before going into Lake Kariba. Now along the north leg is Hostes Nicholle, near the aforementioned gorge. Now, remember the bit I wrote about bats? Well, how about this –

Between 10 January and 14 February 1976, activity patterns, habitat use, and selection of prey by some insectivorous bats were studied in mopane and brachystegia deciduous woodlands in the Sengwa Wild Life Research Area of the Hostes Nicolle Institute of Wild Life Research in Rhodesia (18⚬ 10 S, 23⚬13' E), using ultrasonic (=bat) detectors, light tags, and analysis of insect remains from bat feces.

To be found here.

This is just amazing! Except, the date is wrong, it would maybe have been Feb 1977 because I remember this! I visited with Alan in January 1977, and I couldn’t make this stuff up! Also in this academic paper, the fools got the coordinates wrong. I looked at my map and guessed that it is a printing error and should be 28 degrees not 23. As soon as I can work out how the hell I put that into Google maps I have the exact location of the place.

Another annoying thing is the size of Chirisa. From a safari/hunting web site I got the 2000 square km figure, but the bit I found about the government building the station says 40 000 hectares - which is double! I wonder if they included the Nat Park. I will think about that one. Anyway, onto Mr Rowan Martin. It turns out this bloke is one Africa’s top elllie experts and what he showed me on that day was part of years of research –

Africa's Elephants: Can They Survive?
(Originally published in the November 1980 issue of National Geographic)

But not all our Rhodesian experiences were so gory. On a hill covered in orange and yellow mopane trees, where the Sengwa River runs under sienna-colored cliffs, stands the Hostes Nicolle research station. Here a young scientist, Rowan Martin, was working on an elephant-tracking program.
He had developed a new type of radio collar that used little power, and that could continue transmitting for more than 12 months and be received at a range of ten miles. Tracking was done from tall, rotatable antennas atop sheer hills. He had trained rangers to record the bearings of each of his 20 or so collared elephants every three hours, day and night.
Locating his elephants from his stations, on foot, and by air, Rowan has built up the most detailed data ever compiled on continuous elephant movements. His most exciting result is apparent proof of a new level of elephant society, the "clan," which is beyond the family units and the kinship groups that Iain has found.
Rowan has clear evidence that as many as a hundred individuals sharing a common home range freely associate with each other, but not with individuals of a neighboring clan. He also discovered, as Iain did at Manyara, that large strung-out assemblages of elephants show extraordinary coordination of movement. They rumble to each other, and at times their communication seems almost telepathic.
The full, and well worth reading, article is here.

By 1989, Rowan Martin is the deputy director of research in Zimbabwe's department of wildlife. But whilst his research led the way, it would take a while for the puzzle to be finally finished. From more searching I found this –

Especially baffling had been the way groups of elephants were observed to synchronize their activities while widely separated. In Zimbabwe, for example, the wildlife biologist Rowan Martin had radio-tracked female elephants from different families and noted that they would stay within a few kilometers of one another, even while changing directions and covering substantial territory. They moved in a coordinated fashion, almost as if they were communicating over great distances with . . . what? No one could recall any unusual vocalizations. The separated groups were not in visual contact. Communication by scent was conceivable, but the coordination occurred even when the wind direction was unfavorable. The zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton once remarked, “We didn’t mention ESP openly, but . . . some of us were ready to entertain the idea that these animals were sending bloody mind waves to each other.”

I even found another academic paper where they sent more scientists back to Chirisa and followed many of Rowan’s elephants, over a decade later!

So what is the great secret of the elephants? It is called infrasonic sound. The ellies communicate with each other in a decibel range we humans cannot hear. And, amazingly when they tested the theory in Etosha Nat Park in Namibia, they came to this stunning fact –

With data from sixty trials in total, the experiment confirmed that the elephants of Etosha were capable of responding to one another’s calls from as far away as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), which meant that their communications could typically cover an area of at least 50 square kilometers (19 square miles). In a subsequent analysis, a team of meteorologists established that interactions between ground and air heat from dusk to dawn would expand those ranges. This would theoretically enable elephants to communicate with one another from a distance of about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), covering an area of some 300 square kilometers (115 square miles).

And finally, as more recent research has shown, elephants listen to infrasonic calls not only with their ears, which catch vibrations moving through the air, but also with the bottoms of their feet. The dense, fatty pads there contain specialized receptor nodes known as Pacinian corpuscles that can pick up vibratory information traveling as seismic waves in the ground. The implication is that the animals’ auditory field may be larger than Payne ever imagined, since low-frequency vibrations can travel even greater distances through the earth than through air.

The full article -

The Secret Lives of Elephants
An important conversation is taking place below the range of human hearing

-          can be found here.

It makes incredible reading, especially the part when Katy Payne, a Cornell University acoustic biologist, has literally the answer fly at her.

Obviously I cannot add all this to my memoir but I will add some in the Memoir Mutterings I put on the end of many chapters.

Okay, I have a book to finish, but cool stuff hey! I was actually there with Rowan showing me all the stuff and explaining what he was doing! (Alan Golden and Nigel Triggs were stationed with me at Gokwe. Both play a part and both have helped hugely with the writing of the memoir. I am truly grateful)

Catch ya all laters…
Mana Pools ca 1995 with the late Ranger Steve Pope.

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