Hoping to Help

Gonçalves and her team came upon a mother and her injured calf one day. The calf was limping. Its leg had been caught in a snare. The wound was very serious. Gonçalves knew the baby needed treatment or it would not survive.

She called in reinforcements. A vet flew in on a helicopter with medicines and supplies. Unfortunately, the mother saw people as threats. As her agitation grew, she tore two small trees from the ground. Then she picked up a large stick with her trunk and began wildly thrashing it.

Looking past the mother, the team could see the baby, hidden in the brush. The team stayed in place for hours, hoping that the mother would let them approach. It was not to be. She finally bolted into the brush with her wounded baby.

Four days later, the mother was spotted. She was alone. Gonçalves knew the baby had not survived but was struck by how fiercely the mother had fought to protect her. It was, Gonçalves thought, much like how a human mother might behave.

The matriarch leads, but everyone in the herd looks out for one another.

A matriarch might lead her family to the forest in the morning or lead them to water in the afternoon.

Room to Roam

Today, there are more than 650 elephants living in Gorongosa. Historically, the elephants had free range of the park. Now, with a much smaller population, they stay in the southern part of the park. As the herds grow, Gonçalves wonders which areas they will choose to live in and what will happen when they come in contact with people on a regular basis.

Elephants need room to roam. A matriarch might lead her herd 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a day or more to search for food and water. She might choose to take them through a village while the villagers sleep. The elephants may choose to snack on the villagers’ crops as they pass through.

Big Trouble

As fearful as the elephants are of people, the people have a healthy fear of the elephants, too. And no one wants an unpredictable elephant destroying their crops!

Gonçalves’ goal is for people and elephants to peacefully coexist. Avoiding conflicts between people and elephants is important to both species! So, a key part of her job is to keep track of where the elephants travel. That involves collaring and tracking all of their movements.

Collaring an elephant is every bit as hard as it sounds. First, you have to find an elephant. Gonçalves says they often search for elephants by helicopter.

A dedicated team is in place for the task. When the right elephant is found, the team goes into action.

Gonçalves searches for elephants by helicopter.

Getting a Signal

The team fires a tranquilizer dart at the elephant, which makes the animal sleepy. Once it’s asleep, the team can land. The team doesn’t waste time. “The events happen quickly,” Gonçalves says. “Everyone has a role.”

Some members of the team take measurements of and samples from the elephant. Others help fit the collar around the elephant’s neck. The team works together and takes notes on their work. Then they wait for the elephant to wake up and get back on her feet.

Once the collar is in place, the team will receive data from it every hour. The batteries are long-lasting and will yield data for two years. Gonçalves has collared 10 female elephants so far, and she monitors everywhere they go.

a tranquilizer dart

Gonçalves and the team take samples from a matriarch while they collar her.