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New Zealand satellite technology being used on African elephants

Satellite technology pioneered in New Zealand to track native falcons has been adapted to map the wanderings and diet of elephants on the border of South Africa and Mozambique.
Massey University environmental economist John Holland, in a joint project between the university and South Africa National Parks, “tagged” an elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park last month for satellite tracking, and six others have been tagged in neighbouring Mozambique.

The information collected from the herds will be used to develop management plans for the new Transfrontier Park being developed between South Africa and Mozambique. Dr Holland and another Massey academic, Rob Murray, pioneered the use of satellite technology and GIS to track native falcons in the Central North Island, and record their movement around the region. The success of this programme has led to their technology being use to track the movements and eating habits of some of the 11,600 elephants in the Kruger National Park that sits on South Africa’s border with Mozambique.

Dr Holland has just returned from South Africa where he and his team, doctoral student Abigail Allan, and Mat Holland from Palmerston North’s Boys’ High School helped tranquillise and tag a female elephant with a solar-powered transmitter on a 3m-long collar. In comparison, the transmitters used on falcons here are tiny and weigh only 15g.

The transmitter is now sending information to a satellite in a geostationary orbit some 36,000km above the earth, and onpassing the data to Dr Holland’s computer in Palmerston North. Aligning the satellite co-ordinates with computerised topographical and vegetation maps, along with climate information , creates a detailed picture of where the 24 year-old elephant and her herd are at any one time. It also shows the extent to which they stick to their “home” range, and how their movements are affected by weather.

The Massey/ South Africa National Parks project aims to develop a better understanding of the habits of the elephants because the 11,600-strong herd inhabiting Kruger is pushing the park beyond its carrying capacity, and jeopardising the viability of other species in the park.

“Information we are gathering will make a significant contribution to the development of management plans for the park,” Dr Holland said.