Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Understanding Elephants. An introduction to wildlife research

This 11-day course offers insight into essential techniques used in wildlife research, using the magnificent African elephant as an example. Based at the Knysna Elephant Park on the Garden Route, South Africa the course is run by AERU (African Elephant Research Unit) and includes lectures on many aspects of elephant biology, behaviour and welfare. Each theory session is accompanied by a practical lesson ‘in the field’, allowing you to put theory into practice with 9 beautiful elephants based at the Park and others at similar facilities.

‘Understanding Elephants’ provides an excellent foundation for anyone interested in working with animals and aims to offer you a broad knowledge base by covering the key areas of elephant research, which can be applied to other animals in both wild and captive environments. 'Understanding Elephants' is also ideal for enthusiasts wanting a more hands on, educational (and unforgettable!) experience. You will work alongside experienced field researchers gaining theoretical and practical knowledge that is essential for careers in wildlife research, zoology, or conservation. You will have an opportunity to learn about elephant behavior, anatomy, cognition and conservation with our resident herd and participate in ongoing studies and training. Once you are comfortable with our herd, we will take a few days to visit a sister elephant facility for further observation and observe wild elephant on a game drive at a nearby game reserve.

Course Dates

2012: 2 - 13 Aug 30 Aug - 10 Sept

2013: 11 - 22 Apr 18 - 29 Jul 22 Aug - 2 Sept

For more information, please contact

Monday, February 21, 2011

My golly…has it been that long since we updated our blog…my apologies! AERU had a bumper end to 2010 and by the looks of things, 2011 is going to see AERU grow even bigger and better!


November last year saw us hosting Dr. Marthe Kiley-Worthington and two of her students. Based in France, Dr. Marthe is an animal teaching / training and welfare specialist and has become an integral part of our efforts to find new and improved methods of handling and training elephants. Her two students, Lisa and Cerian, both from the UK, joined her on this visit to conduct projects on the elephants at KEP.


Lisa was looking at stereotypic behaviours and the potential for different enrichment techniques to reduce or eliminate these behaviours. Cerian's work involved the monitoring of elephants in the field – particularly their levels of activity and how far they walked in the day.  Both projects fulfilled the aims of AERU – to use research to guide management and so optimise the welfare of domesticated elephants.


December was filled with long hours in the field…but fortunately these long hours were rewarded with some excellent research findings. We eagerly await the reports from both Dr. Marthe and her students. One of the highlights was teaching two of our elephants to have a pedometer fitted to their legs, so we could work out exactly how many steps they were taking during the day and how this compared to elephants in the wild and other captive situations. This worked very well until Clyde decided to take his pedometer swimming one day…We soon discovered that the water proof casing was not designed for elephants!


Fortunately we do not have a big problem with stereotypic behaviours (often associated with stress, boredom and lack of activity) here at the Park. However, two of our females were showing small signs of stereotypies and we wanting to find out what was causing them and identify the best way of counteracting the problem. Great fun was had designing different enrichment technique,s which we could use to stimulate our elephants. This included feeding them whole fruit and vegetables…the idea being that they had to figure out how to get them open so they could eat them.


Watching Keisha try and bite down on a whole pumpkin and seeing the surprise on her face when it shot out of her mouth will be a sight all of us will never forget! She then resorted to standing on the stubborn vegetable and was soon enjoying her treat. Other techniques we used included hay nets suspended above their pens, huge frozen ice blocks of water, fruit and fruit juice, tyres and tubes filled with straw and pellets. Of course…everything had to be safe, secure and most importantly – elephant proof…not an easy task! One of the most successful ideas was the large buckets, suspended above each elephant – filled with pieces of fruit, pellets and popcorn (yes – elephants love popcorn!). The idea was that they would knock the bucket with their trunks and pellets and popcorn would dislodge from small holes in the bottom, fall to the ground and the elephants could then search for the tasty treats. It was fascinating to watch how it only took them one night to learn how to use these buckets…and how they learnt to use them by watching other animals touch and interact with them. One morning, Sally (our matriarch) managed to pull her entire bucket down (we didn't realise she could stretch quite that high!) and there was great hilarity from all of us as we watched the look of 'elephant-delight' on her face as she feasted on popcorn!! We made sure to hoist her bucket a little higher the next night!


These enrichments proved highly successful and are now implemented on a regular basis. The important thing is that they do not become part of the routine so we are continually coming up with new ideas for our enrichment programme.

Cerian had to return home at the beginning of January but Lisa has decided to stay on and continue her studies with us. She will be looking into doing her Ph.D with us, starting in the latter half of this year.


Kelly Mealor, who volunteered with us in July last year, is also returning to the Park this year, with the elephants being the focus of her Honours project with the University of Stellenbosch.


We are looking forward to welcoming an international research team from Europe and the USA to the Park in March. They are conducting a joint research venture with KEP and AERU – examining the potential of the GnRH vaccine in the contraception of elephants.


We look forward to all these upcoming projects – we are certainly going to have a busy year! There are several more new developments that we have lined up for 2011 but I will save those for the next blog entry….


Friday, October 8, 2010

A while ago I asked our volunteers to start a daily diary, where each one would fill in observations about the day…they didn't have to be scientific about it…just to write a few lines about what they did, what the elephants were up to and interesting and/or funny things that happened. It has developed into a wonderful "in their own words" account of the daily goings-on at the Knysna Elephant Park!


Herewith a few choice excerpts….


Sept 2, 2010

Eventful morning at the Park, as Keisha, who despite her youth, was unceremoniously chased for well over an hour by Namib and Harry, who were trying to mate with her. She seems somewhat receptive in that she will present when approached and is obviously secreting something, but as soon as they try and mount her, she runs away. She is faster and smaller than the boys, so could easily escape while they trotted behind with their penis hanging out. Harry seems to prefer the full on chase and is faster. Namib tried the quiet sneak approach to see if that would be more successful

                                                                                                Laurie (Canada)


Sept 3, 2010

Harry and Namib still unsuccessful in attempts to catch Keisha. Half day today – into town to get groceries. Dinner at the Market in Plett. Fun atmosphere.


Sept 4, 2010

Saturday – Isaure arrives. Volunteers spend the day at Tenikwa Wild Cat Sanctuary and have a lovely lunch in the Crags. Sundowners for Dr. Debbie's birthday at the Ski Boat Club. Great dolphin sightings and a lovely evening.


Sept 12, 2010

It was a good sunny day. In the morning all the volunteers went for a ride. It was so nice. For myself, it was the first time to ride an elephant. It's an experience that I would never forget. After that we were doing activity budgets. I like doing that because you spend a lot of time with the elephants and guides. In the evening we were busy entering data into the computer. Every day it's just a new day at Knysna with elephants around you, I love that!

                                                                                                Emmanuelle (Malawi)


Monday, August 23, 2010

Lately, we have developed a little bit of a routine at the park, which for the most includes many of the same things week after week, such as data collection on elephant activity budgets, nearest neighbor info, herd activity data etc. However, every once in a while, we have the opportunity to get involved in something a little different, like feeding three of our elephants little plastic beads in an attempt to see how long it takes them to pass through their digestive system.

Of course there are many variables that could affect this study, which means we may have to do it on a few occasions in order to get reliable results, but hey, who would not want to do this one again. So, onto the project.

Materials needed: 20 oranges halved, creating 40 pieces. 30 plastic beads in 3 different colors resulting in 10 beads in each of the three colors.

Our test subjects:  Harry, Shungu and Mashudu

Object of the exercise: Feed each of the three elephants 10 orange halves studded with one color set of beads for a midnight snack and wait to see when they come out the following day. I can only imagine how lucky these three felt in the middle of the night being fed highly prized oranges for a snack... You may have noticed that there are 10 orange halves left over... those went bead free to Tosha, who's pen happens to be in between our test subjects and she would have been most unhappy and highly agitated had she not received treats as well... So, to keep the peace, our big moody girl was fed as well.

So, 6:30 this morning, Lana and I show up all ready for our day of dung digging. Elephants have notoriously bad digestive systems, and thus we did not expect that we would see the first bead within at least 8 hours of ingesting it. Now, this process is nothing like the simple act of collecting a dung sample and requires one to painstakingly comb through every square inch of ejected dung, which, when it comes to Harry, is allot of dung.  We spent the entire day from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm, sifting through a mountain of dung only to recover 2 measly beads.

Tomorrow will be a new day with new dung and hopefully far more beads.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

RE: Volunteer page

Rainy days create the perfect opportunity for an elephant to swim, as the water in the dam actually feels warmer than the temperature of the air.  I was following Keisha that day and as always, she never fails to disappoint. The funny thing with Keisha is nobody really expects her to be the silly one... she is sweet and she looks after Thato.. she is many things, but she is also a 6 years old who sometimes just feels the need to play. I have seen her before, down at the dam, swishing water through her toes and flapping her trunk through the water to make waves etc, so when I saw her start again this day, I thought it would be more of the same, which is a joy to watch in and of itself. But no, she suddenly started wading into the water and then walking through before she took her first plunge. We watched her for 33 minutes, while she played. At one point I thought she was going to drown, as she was completely submerged, until her little trunk poked above the water.. at another time I thought she was stuck and couldn't get out of the water and would thus drown... it was worry and panic in between bouts of laughter. Every time I started to worry, one of the guides would quietly assure me that it was perfectly normal and no, she would not drown, nor was she stuck, she was simply just swimming.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Representatives of AERU and KEP recently attended the 2010 International Elephant Foundation Conservation and Research Symposium held at Kwalata Game Ranch, Pretoria. The symposium was attended by elephant owners, researchers and conservationists from South Africa and around the world. International delegates came from Europe, America, India, Sri Lanka and other African States, such as Kenya, Uganda and Botswana.

Greg Vogt (GM of KEP and chairman of the Elephant Tourism Association (ETA) and Dr. Debbie Young (head of AERU) presented an overview of the captive elephant situation in South Africa, together with a synopsis of research done on captive elephants in SA. The symposium also allowed us to introduce AERU (the newly formed African Elephant Research Unit at KEP) and highlight the need for sound research on captive elephants within their unique environments, with a view to using science to guide management of captive elephants.

Our presentation, as well as the implementation of a dedicated captive elephant research centre, was extremely well received. Conference delegates were encouraged by AERU's mission to combine research, good husbandry, management and education, with several of them wanting to form research and education partnerships. The introduction of the ETA at the conference also led to the Asian delegates identifying a need for the formation of a similar organisation, which would guide and monitor the management of elephants in their own countries.

Many international zoo delegates were astonished by the photos we showed at the conference – showing elements of how our family of elephants range across fields of grassland and fynbos. This led to an interesting debate on how to define a 'captive elephant'.      

Since the conference, delegates from India, Sri Lanka, USA and Germany have visited KEP. Several more have planned visits for the coming months. Those that have already visited have been extremely impressed with our facilities, our family of beautiful elephants and the way in which we care for and manage them. We are certain that these past and future visitors will result in the formation of long-standing partnerships, which will help to facilitate valuable research initiatives.

We will keep you updated on AERU's activities and research studies…and hopefully, at next year's conference we will be able to present data collected during one of SA's first research studies dedicated to improving the welfare and husbandry of captive elephants in this country.