Here at the Tsavo Trust, we use our Super Cub light aircraft for a large amount of our elephant conservation operations. In the air, we are able to cover large distances and provide essential information to ground teams. Our pilots have become experts in identifying elephant from above and at looking out for certain other signs that help in our conservation efforts.
One of the main questions that they is asked of our pilots is how they are able to identify certain elephants from the air.
Considering that the specific goal of the Trust – nestled within the broader, umbrella incentive of elephant conservation in general – is in the preservation of Kenya’s big Tuskers, identifying certain of these individuals is not difficult.
A big Tusker is an elephant with tusks so long that they scrape the floor. There are only around 25 individuals left alive that exist in this category worldwide.
Because of their scarcity and the attribute that makes them standout, our big Tuskers are easy to identify from above. But, of course, our remit for looking out for Tsavo’s elephants does not end with these incredibly important individuals. Furthermore, there is often a need for us to sanction repeat surveys on a certain individual that may have recently given birth or suffered an injury.
As a result, our pilots have become very good at identifying elephant individuals from above. Being able to do so quickly and easily comes down to experience and is helped by frequent updates to information. Our pilots know elephant individuals from their appearance, their known affiliates, their last recorded position, from their habits and from a whole host of other factors.
Something that querying stakeholders often ask next is how our pilots are able to sex the elephants from above. And it is an interesting question considering that the most distinguishing parts of this classification of an elephant individual are not visible from a bird’s eye view.
So, here’s the answer.
How to tell the difference between a male and female elephant:
From above, our pilots cannot see the mammary glands and the phallic shaft that differentiate between females and males respectively. But they can see a vast array of other factors that are just as useful in sexing elephants.
Posture is often an eyebrow raiser to the person who queries the physical differences between male and female elephant. But, it is a good distinction between the two. As you can see from the photos above, bulls tend to hold their heads above their shoulders. Cows, conversely, let their heads hang lower and below the peak of their shoulder blades.
You’ll also see how the males tend to have a gradually descending abdomen sloping from forelegs to the rear. Females, instead, have a rounded abdominal region.
Shape of head
In profile, it can be noticed that female elephants have more squared and pronounced brows. In comparison, males have a larger and more rounded profile. Furthermore, there tends to be greater width on a males brow and, in females, more slender tusks.
Factors such as these, however, tend to become quite blurred when sexing some of the larger individuals of each of the sexes. Pictured below is Dida and you can see that her tusks are anything but slender. You can, however, see the proud brow that marks her as a female, and a spectacular one at that.
Both posture and the shape of an elephants head are important in being able to differentiate between the sexes. However, nothing is more important than keeping our pilots in near-constant surveillance of them. That way they can recognise each elephant individual with ease and also respond to threats faced by them as quickly as is necessary.