Elephant Country Blog 5: Behind the Scenes at Mushara

Every field season has its idiosyncrasies and challenges. This year, nature kept Tim particularly busy maintaining technology in order to keep the camp safe and operational, starting with a humane catch-and-release program for the inordinate number of brazen mice that inhabited our camp and got under foot after such good rains brought much grass seed—and abundance of food. Not only can mice be a nuisance by chewing the corners of each box of long-life milk or juice that they can, they also attract a problematic pursuer—the snake. And as a reminder of previous snake encounters, Tim’s snake catching apparatus, nicknamed The Mongoose, hangs next to the tower, accessible when needed—and fortunately, this season, it wasn’t needed.

Then came the elephant incident, where a small family group discovered what a wonderful dusting spot the sand above our freshly buried microphone wires proved to be. In no time, while dusting and snacking on the thorn bushes that were meant to protect the microphone, the matriarch dug up the cables, which meant having to rebury them—not an insignificant task in the heat of the African sun.

A few nights later, the hyena den that came in for a drink was clearly so impressed with the microphone that one of the members made off with it. With over two thousand dollars of equipment swiped, and no replacement, Tim headed out to drive the perimeter of the clearing in the direction I had last seen the eight hyenas leaving the waterhole at about two a.m. the previous night in the hope of retrieving it. As he got a quarter of the way around the clearing, one of our volunteers and I spotted the fluffy black windsock stuffed within a plumbing T-junction meant to protect it from the inquisitive jaws of both lions and hyenas.

Although the plumbing T-junction did its job, now Tim was faced with soldering all the wire connections back up. This was particularly challenging because it had to be done in situ to avoid pulling up all the wires and reburying them.

Tim solders the three-pin acoustic connectors back onto the wires within the safety of the truck, using a 12-volt soldering iron. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

And not wanting to miss a night of sound recordings, this meant doing the fixing at elephant-o’clock, which was just before sunset. Fortunately, Spencer obliged us by accommodating our “MacGyver” near the waterhole while he and a small bull drank and watched with seeming interest under the almost-full moon.

Tim replacing the stolen microphone within our reinforced rock pile with two bulls watching our progress while they drink. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

While Tim kept all the technology running, the elephant research team got on with the research. Some of the larger groups came in before sunset, and sometimes on their own, which allowed us the opportunity to confirm some of the larger female family members of such groups as the Pharaohs and Big Momma.

Pharaohs drinking at the waterhole with Cleopatra on guard, depicted far right facing us. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell. CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND.

These bigger groups required “all hands on deck” to manage all the data collection, which sometimes meant stopping dinner preparations in the kitchen so that the camp was as quiet as possible.

Research team in tower recording herd composition, scoring dominance and confirming i.d.s of the older females within the Pharaohs. From left to right, Melinda Sacks, Katie Lawler, Julia Gimeno, Kelsey Jessup, Caitlin O’Connell. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

The bunker helped us obtain the ID photos for a few completely new families such as the Authors.

A few of the dominant members of the Author family assess the bunker to determine if the i.d. team posed a threat. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

By mid-season, even though families were mostly coming in after dark and mostly one family right after the other or during the same visit, we were slowly building our fecal sample numbers from the rarer day visits. We weren’t getting nearly the number of samples as I had hoped, but I was humbly reminded that nature was going to dictate the speed at which we’d be able to piece together the puzzle of family group dynamics

CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Despite the chaos of families coming and going in the dark, we were able to determine ranks between families by scoring which families were able to usurp the source of the spring from other lower ranking families, forcing the lower ranking families to drink from the brackish water in the pan.

After being displaced from the source of the spring, lower ranking family leaves the waterhole. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Several nights after full moon, while the night watch team counted elephants and scored dominance interactions between five different families that showed up, Tim took a couple of long exposures of the tower under the Milky Way. The brilliance of the stars within the Milky Way were a constant reminder of how small our planet really is in the larger scheme of things

Long exposure of the tower before moonrise. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

But with the elephant and rhino poaching crisis weighing heavily on our minds, it was tough to think beyond our immediate world and the urgent need to keep the charismatic beings safe.

This season is supported by Tembo PreserveThe Elephant SanctuaryStanford Universityand Utopia Scientific volunteers.

Caitlin O’Connell, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a world-renowned expert on elephants.  Her twenty years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and  popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. Her more recent books included Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Ivory Ghosts(Penguin Random House ebook imprint Alibi, 2015).  ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award.

Caitlin’s research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations has been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website ( and her author site at She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog Also follow her on twitter: Mushara

Author photo credit: Max Salomon


  1. Lisa Bohannan
    United States
    July 30, 7:07 pm

    I always look forward to your posts with baited breath! Thank you for doing the incredible work that you do and sharing your photos and experiences with those of us who cannot be there but in spirit.