Dedicated to creating a peaceful future for elephants in Southern Tanzania, and beyond

A day in the life of an elephant researcher

Photos and text by Penny Banham










My name is Penny Banham. I recently completed my MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. Currently, I am collaborating with STEP on a study exploring the home ranges of elephants in Ruaha National Park. STEP camp is located outside the park and every day my assistant, Kevin, and I travel into Ruaha and search for elephants. Here is an idea of what a day in the life of an elephant researcher is like!


A large group of elephants in the Mwagusi sandriver

6:00 am – The day starts in STEP’s research camp with hot, strong coffee and fresh chapati prepared by Jose, our camp cook. Preparations of the equipment needed for fieldwork are carried out as breakfast is eaten.

7:30 – Kevin and I set off for Ruaha with the Land Rover packed full of our equipment, food, water and spare parts for the old car.

9:00 – By now we have found a a few elephants but we are heading further into the park to the last remaining pools of water in the latter part of the dry season. Hopefully there will be more elephants to be found.

10:12 – We find a group of elephants wallowing in a stagnant pool of green sludge. With water and mud pools scarce, the elephants will tolerate less than preferable conditions to allow themselves to cool off. The calves seem to relish in the brief interlude of the struggle of trying to find food and water. They take the opportunity to slide down mud banks, experiment with their trunk in its dexterity in picking up mud and push each other into the deepest pools (with much screaming and running back and forth to their mothers). Another cow-calf herd is spotted determinedly marching towards the mud pool and the elephants know that their time of socialising and bathing is over and reluctantly slope off to allow for the next group to unwind.

13:36 – With little to eat in the dry season, the baobab (Adansonia digitata) seems to be a favourite of the elephants. One such baobab has collapsed under the strain of having the entirety of its base eaten by the giant pachyderms. Elephants jostle each other for prime spots to rip apart the tree. The ground is carpeted with dung, discarded branches stripped of their bark, and the tracks of thousands of elephants. In the world of elephants, this baobab has become quite the banquet. The matriarchs and dominant bulls dominate the prime feeding positions and the younger generations give way to these individuals. Those who do not are unceremoniously pushed out of the way. A fight breaks out a few metres from the baobab between two young bulls; both intent on eating the same branch. It is quickly settled and the smaller of the bulls moves around to the other side of the baobab to try his luck there. With the coming and goings at the banquet, it is a struggle to note which group is present, the ages and sexes of all the individuals. After 45 minutes of watching it all unfold, we push on to find other groups of elephants.

14:29 – There were reports of an adult female elephant killed by a lion in the area. It takes very little effort to search for the carcass. There are four lions feeding on the elephant. I had hoped that I would be able to get close to see if a photo of the ear could be taken so we could identify which individual had been killed, but the bush is thick and it’s not possible. However, a camera trap I placed four days earlier is not more than 50m away from the carcass and I am hopeful that we may have photos of the event.

14:42 – A group of three individuals is found close by. They are surprisingly relaxed considering that the smell of the carcass is wafting through the air. Even for a human nose, the smell is strong. They are resting under a sausage tree (Kigelia africana). I note the ages, sexes and tusks of each individual. The adult female is a tuskless individual. The phenomenon of tusklessness is typically found in females and can be due to genetics or as a result of a broken tusk.

15:01 – We come across a herd of buffalo: approximately 2000 individuals crossing the Mwagusi sand river. Tourist vehicles are lined up across the bank avidly watching the charge. I cannot resist also stopping to watch. I see elephants in the distance digging in the sand to reach the water below the riverbed and we drive off to see the group.

15:19 – In the thick bush on the bank of the Mwagusi river we come across a lone bull. His size is immense and due to the vegetation and position of the road, we find ourselves only a few metres away from him. We both know to remain silent and with hardly a breath, I move towards my camera to take photos for his identification. The bull seems highly disinterested in our vehicle and continues to chomp his way through an acacia. The whole tree shakes with his efforts of debranching it. As his tongues wraps around the acacia leaves, his eyes scrutinise our vehicle and its inhabitants. It is a pure privilege to be this close (even if by accident) to such a large bull, but it is also a relief when he decides to make his way off into the bush. Such a large elephant simply melts in the bush leaving little evidence of his presence.

16:11 – On our way out of the park, we come across a pair of lions lying on their backs nestled in the well of the roots of the baobab tree. Their eyes slowly open to take a look at the vehicle as we stop by them and then they return to their peaceful snoozing.

18:00 – Back in camp, I enter the data from our fieldwork in my makeshift office tent with the doors firmly shut to prevent all the cicadas in the area sharing in the delight of my solar lights. We had a bumper day of elephants, totalling 22 sightings. This equates to approximately 127 individual elephants. It takes me the better part of an hour to enter the data into my database. I also enter data regarding the waterpoints and vegetation the elephants were utilising.

21:00 –  With all the data entered, I call it a day so I can be up and early for fieldwork tomorrow.

Elephants at a mud wallow in the Mwagusi sandriver