Focus on Research: An interview with Dr Michelle Henley, Director of Elephants Alive

Posted on Sun June 21, 2020.

Dr Michelle Henley is the Co-founder, Director & Principal Researcher for research team of Elephants Alive, which was founded in in 2003 under its previous title of Save the Elephants – South Africa.

Since then, Michelle has spearheaded the collection of over two decades of ground-breaking data on African elephants, with the aim of helping to secure their future on the continent and promote harmony between humans and elephants.

Recently, Elly caught up with Michelle for a fascinating chat about her time spent researching elephants in Africa, recapping some of her most memorable moments in the field and the lessons we have to learn from these gentle giants.

Michelle is proudly South African and knew from the tender age of 5 years old that she wanted to work in nature. By her first year of primary school, she had set her heart on being a game ranger.

"I later realised that to work in places like Kruger National Park, you need certain qualifications – you can’t just be a wildlife enthusiast! So, I started studying the minute I could."

Upon finishing high school, Michelle worked in a library for two years to save enough money to begin her studies and put herself through university. 12 years later, she had successfully completed her undergraduate degree, Honours and Masters on elephant contraceptives at the University of Pretoria, as well as her PhD in elephant ecology at the University of Witwatersrand!

It was at that point that Michelle was offered a job as project manager for Save the Elephants - South Africa, a branch of the larger Save The Elephants (STE) organisation founded by Marlene McCay and Iain Douglas Hamilton. In order to garner more local support from corporates within South Africa, the NGO moved to becoming Elephants Alive.

"South Africa has got very unique questions and interests. Everyone’s worried about big trees here, whereas in East Africa they are more worried about poaching. So, we became more was a strategic move but we still work very closely with Save the Elephants and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of being part of an organisation that has a continental footprint."

Elephants Alive was born from the pre-existing mantras of STE and is currently operated by a team of eight, dedicated members: Michelle, Anka, Robin, Ronny, Joel, and Tinyiko, with Kayla recently joining the team as the GIS technician and Harriet managing the marketing and fundaising.

The team are currently focused on a number of inspiring initiatives, one of which is their 'Bees, Trees, Elephants and People Project,' which Klaserie Sands are hoping to get involved in. The expansion of this project is enabled by the funding they recently received from the Tanglewood Foundation to set up 100 beehives just outside the Greater Kruger area.

"We’re going to be teaching the Black Mamba anti-poaching unit to develop bee-keeping skills because that’s another way in which they can support themselves" says Michelle, "We think it is really important to support staff that are working and protecting wildlife, but also give them other skill sets that they can roll out in their community."

Elephants Alive also want to establish three garden types with the Black Mambas: a food garden, a medicinal plant garden (to prevent people acquiring plant parts from local protected areas), and a garden dedicated to elephant-unfriendly crops such as ginger, garlic, onion, chilli, sunflowers and lemongrass.

Although it is clear elephants are not partial to Asian cuisine, there are a number of mango and citrus farms on the outskirts of the Greater Kruger, which are undoubtedly enticing for a hungry elephant in the drier months. It is hoped that the distasteful products grown in these gardens will help farmers to reduce crop-raiding in an ethical and sustainable way, beyond the area where Elephants Alive is based.

Michelle and her team play an important role in mitigating the conflict between local farmers and elephants. "We had three elephants that were crop-raiding mango farmers and it took months of planning to eventually bring those elephants back on a flatbed truck!" she says.

"We kept them out of the mango fields by burning elephant dung that we impregnated with a chilli mix - it makes this toxic-smelling smoke that the elephants hate! We would be burning that around the fields until we could collar one of them on foot and understand their movements. Then it was two months of planning before we trucked them back."

It wasn't until the crop-raiding culprits were collared and transported back to the reserve that the team worked out their cunning escape tactics. You may not imagine that these giant pachyderms are particularly accomplished climbers, but it turned out the cheeky, young bulls were clambering over the weir at the Olifants River!

"I think once you’ve tasted a mango, you’ll never forget it!" says Michelle, "Two of them have actually shifted their home ranges close to the weir, so they’re always peeking to see if any of the barriers have a weak spot."

Being highly social animals, it's possible that these clever bulls will teach others how to access the fobidden fruit. While the whole exercise was expensive and time-consuming, Michelle claims it was entirely worth it to understand just how intelligent they really are and to learn the skills for mitigating potential conflict in the future.

"During the day, they would go and hide in the thick bush of the Blyde mountains and there’s no way [we] could find them there or kick them out with a helicopter. The only way we could collar them was on foot, which is what we eventually did. Once we could follow their routine via the satellite collars, we could launch the operation to bring the naughty boys back to the safety of protected areas."

Having spent so many years studying elephants in the wild, Michelle has certainly enjoyed some memorable moments with the unique characters and personalities that she came to know so well. One particular elephant that holds a special place in her heart is an elderly female known as Eragrostis who is completely blind.

"Her daughter Themida would always wait for her and come back and contact her. She would also walk in the road because it was obviously an easier place to walk if you’re blind. She became very habituated and she was just such a peaceful elephant. It was amazing to watch how her daughter cared about her and would never leave her alone."

Michelle recalls a windy and rainy day when Eragrostis became disorientated and began walking in circles, calling out to her daughter in deep rumbles. "[Themida] immediately came out of the bushes and guided her back to the rest of the family - I’ll never forget seeing that!"

Certainly, working with animals is not a risk-free business, particularly when it comes to being at close quarters with wild African elephants! One of Michelle's most hair-raising encounters happened during the course of her PhD and she puts it down to her lack of experience at the time.

Accompanied by an experienced Kruger field ranger called José, Michelle was conducting vegetation surveys to look at the difference in feeding habits between male and female elephants. This required her to locate some elephants each day and tag along behind them, measuring certain plant features as she went.

"This particular day, we drove past this reservoir which had six, big bulls drinking at it and so we kept on because we were interested in the breeding herd [ahead]. I had in the back of my mind that those bulls usually tag behind the breeding herd with about a 30- or 40-minute delay, so I asked José to stand on a termite mound to spot them when they were coming because we would have to get back to the vehicle" says Michelle.

Ten minutes passed before José spotted the bulls coming towards them and the pair rushed back to the vehicle, only partially closing the car doors behind them. "The mopane saplings just opened like a curtain...It was honestly like a stage show!" Michelle recalls, "This one big bull just came and stood with his knees against the bullbar of the car and he slapped his trunk down on the bonnet!"

Frightened and equally worried about the elephant damaging her father's car, Michelle tried to distract herself by looking at the patterns the bull's trunk was making on the dusty bonnet. The elephant then stuck his trunk through the open car window and started feeling José all over – sniffing him!

"José lost his cool because he had the bull’s trunk in his face and he slapped it!" Michelle laughed, "Then [the elephant] pushed the door open from the inside, took his trunk out of the window, slammed the door and walked away! I was so petrified at the time but when I look back on it, it was so amazing because he was just curious. Slamming the door on us in response to José’s slap was very humorous in retrospect!"

Elephants, being highly social and intelligent animals, have a lot in common with us humans, but there are also many lessons we can afford to learn from these gentle giants. Elephants revere the elders in their family groups and the older you get, the higher ranking you become.

Michelle believes that modern-day humans are removing old people from young people, breaking down important communication channels and preventing information from being passed down by our elders; something that elephants naturally facilitate.

"Elephants teach us to respect the knowledge and stories of how things were – we should never discredit the knowledge that older people have for children and for guiding us along this route of life. I feel elephants are just amazing - they naturally do that."

"What I love about elephants is that they’re pushing the boundaries" says Michelle, "They’re big movers and big shakers, and they call us to a unified world. They see a world that doesn’t have political boundaries. It’s us as a species that divides and fragments things because of political agendas whereas [elephants] solve problems by working together."

Although there are very few communities in the world that have not been affected by the ongoing pandemic, these negative circumstances have had a unifying effect on a global scale. Irrespective of our cultural backgrounds or origins, we are all in this together. Perhaps taking a deeper look at elephants will provide a timely reminder of the importance of working together in the face of adversity and these immense challenges.

If you would like to learn more about the impactful work of Elephants Alive you can visit their website or Facebook page where you will find regular updates and information about their amazing initiatives.


Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Harriet Nimmo, Transfrontier Africa, Wynand Uys, Michelle Henley and Elephants Alive.