Wild Elephant Kachikau

Kachikau and her calf

Kachikau was a large female elephant, approximately 30 years of age, and the matriarch of her family herd of 8. Her nature seemed to be one of a calm, reserved matriarch. Not once had we witnessed her show any signs of aggression or distress. She kept her calf close to her side and was an attentive mother, much to the pleasure of the young one, who seemed shy among the larger elephants.

Kachikau, second from left, strolls with her herd.

On September 25, 2008, during the harsh dry season, Kachikau was fitted with a satellite collar. In her herd were two young calves, the first one aged about two years and the other only a few months old. The youngest looked extremely thin, and at the time our vet thought that she would not survive the remainder of the season. However, six months later, when the herd was spotted in Botswana along the Chobe River, we were relieved to learn that not only did the young calf survive, but that she belonged to Kachikau.

Kachikau, second from right, and her calf in April 2010.

During the two years we followed Kachikau’s movements, she covered a 6,755-square-kilometer (2,608 square miles) area. The majority of her time was spent within the protection of the Chobe National Park, staying close to the river in the dry season but periodically crossing to feed on the grasses that occur on the floodplains. During the rains she roamed further, venturing into the forest reserves. The herd preferred the western side of the Park, which has the least amount of tourism traffic. However, when we observed her from our research vehicle, her family did not seem disturbed by our presence, sometimes walking within a few meters of us.

Occasionally, the herd would return to the forested area close to where we originally collared her. We believe these sporadic jaunts north were induced by the herd’s familiarity of the area and their desire for particular food sources. It was on one of these excursions that Kachikau was tragically killed.

The last time we saw Kachikau alive, she and her young calf looked healthy among several other elephant herds, forming a congregation of elephants nearly 300 strong. Only one week later, after tracking her in Chobe National Park, she crossed the river once again. We were surprised this time, only because the river was in full flood. Kachikau’s 2-year-old calf would have had to cross a 2-kilometer (1.2 miles) stretch of water with the support of the herd. Continuing on her track, Kachikau did not sway from a course that we had not observed before. To us, she had just returned to an area familiar to the herd. After 2 days, 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from the river’s edge, Kachikau’s collar sent a GPS point from the same position. Upon discovering this, we immediately jumped in our vehicle and set out to learn why she was not moving. We were hoping that somehow the collar may have fallen off. We plotted a course on our GPS to ensure we could drive the vehicle in as close as possible to the data point. Within a few kilometers of the point, we decided there was too much surface water and had to hike the rest of the way in. Positioning ourselves to use the tracking antennae and placing the headset on, we looked up to see vultures fly from the ground into the sky. Our hearts sank, as we knew the inevitable: Kachikau was dead.

We examined the situation and all evidence as best we could. Her tusks were intact, so we believe it was not a poaching incident. We found no evidence of her herd or her young calf. We talked to the farmers that were closest to the location, and they reported that they were not having problems with elephants crop raiding, despite us noting they had no means of deterrence around their crops to stop any animals from doing so. There were no signs that Kachikau may have had any natural physical complications, either. Our initial assessment is that Kachikau had likely been shot when she crossed the river.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence. Villagers, farmers, and fisherman regularly shoot at elephants to either scare or intentionally harm them, in hopes to prevent elephants from entering fields, villages, or damaging property, such as fishing nets laid out across the river. The elephants are not necessarily actually doing the offense, but it is one method that people use to avoid potential conflict.

Kachikau’s death is tragic and sadly unnecessary. The issues surrounding the incident are extremely complex, but they threaten African elephants throughout the continent. We are currently working to address these concerns. Elephants Without Borders, with support from the San Diego Zoo, has started an ambitious new program to try to avoid these retaliatory killings and reduce human-elephant conflict. Our Elephant Conservation and Community Outreach Farming Project, the first project of its kind in southern Africa, ultimately aims at achieving a level of coexistence between elephants and people.

To support our elephant conservation work in Africa and learn more, visit the San Diego Zoo’s Project Elephant Footprint.

Kelly Landen is the director/program manager for Elephants Without Borders.

20 Responses to Wild Elephant Kachikau

  1. Thank you Kelly. It is heartbreaking to read this story but unless we know the facts change will not be possible.

  2. Congrats to Sereivathana Tuy, “Uncle Elephant”, for being a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. It is wonderful more attention is being paid to this subject.

  3. That is so sad. :(

    I hope the Elephant Conservation and Community Outreach Farming Project goes very well! Are you in touch with the Elephant Pepper Development Trust? That group also encourages means of deterrence around crops to stop elephants crop raiding.

  4. My heart is breaking. I am so sad for everyone involved and especially the baby. May God protect her.

    Thank you for your research and trying to help the beloved elephants, Gods special creatures.

  5. Kelly, what a tragic end to such a magnificent animal. I do hope that her calf is still alive and that the rest of the herd is still thriving. These conflicts of man vs animals always end tragicialy for the animals. With people like yourself on the side of the animals we will hopefully begin to work toward a better understanding of what these animals mean and contribute to our planet. Thank you for all the work that you group does to protect these animals, keep up the good work.

  6. Thank you very much for your kind words of support. It is a tragic, harsh reality that sometimes we have to face, but only makes us want to work even harder…

    Barbara, unfortunately we will never know if her calf will survive, but what is encouraging to know is that she has her family herd for support, and one of the females is also a mother of another calf, so perhaps she will help the young one. The calf is just at the age of being weaned and learning other food sources, so she might struggle for a while, but she still has a good chance of making it.

    Mark, yes we are very familiar with the Pepper Trust. Their main site and office in Zambia is only an hour from us. We have met with the founder/director many times and are implementing their advice and experience in our new project. We plan to pursue a tighter partnership, too, and we are helping them on a collaborative study and research papers.

    Again, we appreciate all your support, and sincerest gratitude to the San Diego Zoo! Kelly

  7. Kelly & Dr. Mike: This sad, sad news is so heartbreaking and certainly tragic for both of you. I’m in awe of your strength in these situations. Thank you for all your dedication to elephants.

  8. What a terrible thing to happen. I am so very sorry.

  9. So sad. Hopefully her calf was old enough to be cared for by its Aunties as they do at WAP. Too much needless killing of all types of life around the world. There is enough food and land for all if we would learn to share instead of fight.

  10. I am completely broken hearted over this terrible news. I pray for the calf and the family that they will not be harmed. Thank you all for what you do to help these magnificent creatures survive in such a harsh environment.

  11. Kelly & Dr Mike – so sad to hear what happened to Kachikau, especially as she was the matriarch of her small herd. Hopefully her calf has found the herd and is OK. Your Elephant Conservation and Community Outreach Farming Project sounds like an excellent program to help avoid such tragic incidents – keep up the good work! I see that you’re listed on greatnonprofits.org – hope you get enough reviews to qualify in the Green Choice Campaign.

  12. :-(

    May the programs be very successful!

  13. How very sad. Why can’t people and nature get along? People are ignorant to other ways to avoid such things from happening. Everyday people and governments alike need to stop and take notice and try to come up with ideas to stop these things from happening and live at peace with nature.

  14. How about a “New Elephant to Love” blog for Swazi’s baby?

    Moderator’s note: Good idea!

  15. I’m very disgusted to hear that Kachikau was murdered for no reason! These animals are innocent victims. It’s cruel and unfair, and I wish someone would shoot in the direction of the farmers or others who think it is okay to scare the animals with such violence. I just pray for the day when human beings wake up and treat all animals with the dignity and respect they deserve, what has happened to humanity?

  16. Hi! Read your article about Kachikau and her calf. Sorry to read that the poachers killed her and the calf is nowhere to be seen. Hopefully the calf is with the herd of aunts and grandmother.
    When do you think you are going to name Swazi’s baby ellie calf? Maybe letting us vote for a name? Let us know, ok? And, also let us know how Umoya is doing with her second pregnancy. She should be about a couple of months away from giving birth to her calf. Looking for new updates!
    Chari Mercier :)
    St. Pete, FL

  17. I am so very sorry to hear about Kachikau. :( I hope you find that her calf is doing well.

  18. Have there been any more updates on locating Kachikau’s calf?

  19. We wish we had some way to find out, but unfortunately, we do not. The elephant population we work with is numbered over 150,000 strong and can be difficult to identify any particular individual (especially a young calf) and at this time of the year, as the seasons change from the rainy to the drier time of year, their seasonal ranges change. Kachikau’s herd had a home range of 2,608 square miles, so without a collar on a member of that particular herd, we could only guess as to where they may be now.