On the Ground Diary: Day 2

The collaring

5 a.m. We set out to where we saw the elephants the night before to try to pick up their trail. We meet up with the Sabah Wildlife Department team, who drove overnight to meet us. Rosa, the veterinarian, is here to oversee the collaring and make sure that nothing happens to the elephant.

Elis, the ranger with the dart gun, figures he’s darted around 40 elephants during his career, making him one of the most experienced elephant darters in Asia. He fills the darts with the sedative, checks his gun and gets ready. Each dart has a bright red quill on it, so that it can be easily seen and retrieved in the forest if it falls short of its target or bounces off the elephant’s thick hide. 

6:50 a.m. The trackers have found the elephants, in less than 10 minutes. The team sets off into the jungle after them.

7:36 a.m. Elis takes his first shot. The herd trumpets in alarm as one of its members is hit.

8:03 a.m. The second dart hits its mark, but the elephant keeps moving. The drug we’re using is milder than many sedatives and elephants can keep going for up to 45 minutes after being darted. A group of five other elephants is on the other side of the road, and drawn by the alarm calls of the herd we’re tracking, is trying to join the herd.

“Watch your back,” warns Christy, the head of WWF’s Asian elephant program. Elephants are famously protective of their families and a herd will become distressed when one of its members is hit by a dart and appears injured.

8:30 a.m. We head back to the road. The elephant Elis has targeted has been hit twice, but she’s still moving. The trackers retrieve the two darts and realize that the first one was dented by the animal’s tough hide and fell off, while the second hit her back and all the sedative sprayed out of it. For such a large animal, shooting an elephant is proving surprisingly difficult.

9:20 a.m. The team decides to try pursuing the herd of elephants on the other side of the road, the ones that have been calling to the group we’ve been tracking.

10 a.m. There is much trumpeting as Elis darts another elephant from the second group. This time, the dart works and the elephant slows down after 25 minutes. She makes rumbling sounds - infrasound used by elephants to communicate - to call to her family for help.

Another dart brings her to a stand still and the team moves in. The drug makes the elephant immobile, but keeps her on her feet, still conscious. The team moves quickly, and quietly, to lessen the stress on her. One member of the team covers her eyes with cotton, as Raymond and Christy hoist the 22-pound collar over her neck.

The grey box housing the GPS and satellite units must be pointing at the sky to work, so it’s positioned on the back of her neck and counterweights are tightened to the ends of the collar below her throat. Enough room is left to ensure the collar isn’t too tight, but not so loose that she could slip it off.

WWF staff takes her measurements with a large measuring tape, while another team member does a quick walkaround to check for scars, injuries and identifying marks. She has a large, U-shaped hole in one ear. She’s a big elephant, probably around 40 and may well be the matriarch of the herd. She also appears to be pregnant, something we’ll be able to determine in the coming months as the field team keeps close tabs on her.

11:35 a.m.  It’s done! After a group photo with the elephant, the team backs quickly away as Elis injects a dartful of antidote into her rump. She calls to her herd and angry trumpets can be heard from the group as they rush to check on her.

Wonder what they think of the new neckware she’s now sporting?

Going after a Bornean Pygmy elephant (<i>Elephas maximus borneensis</i>) that has just ... / ©: WWF-Canon / A. Christy WILLIAMS
Going after a Bornean Pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) that has just been shot with a sedative so it can be collared, Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia.
© WWF-Canon / A. Christy WILLIAMS

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