Trunk Call

By Johnie Jonker


In April 2001 the South African Natural History Unit (SANHU) released a wildlife TV film commissioned by Discovery Channel International, Animal Planet and HIT Entertainment. The press release read as follows:

Described as one of the most exciting natural history shows ever seen on television, ‘Ele Tele’ offers 50 minutes of sensational viewing from the unbelievably exciting personal perspective of a mature African elephant cow as she ranges through South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park.

In a world-first, SANHU filmed the footage for the programme using a specially-designed camera and microphone rig (called the EleCam), attached to a collar worn by Afslurpie – an elephant specifically selected for the project by South African National Parks (SANP). Since the EleCam was controlled remotely, there was no film crew close to the elephant or her family. As a result, the recorded footage – filmed between mid-January and mid-February this year – reflects the uninhibited behaviour of elephants in the wild and has provided revelatory information for scientists about elephant behavioural patterns.

Not covered by the film, however, was the learning curve which commenced exactly a year earlier, leading up to the (eventual) successful shooting of this footage. The following is an attempt to relate these events as an eyewitness report.


The original camera was contracted to a UK company who installed a radio controlled zoom camera with video transmitter inside an enclosure, to be mounted on a collar attached around the elephant’s neck.

As my employer at the time did the maintenance on the Route 66 helicopter camera equipment – which provided aerial footage for the project – we were known as having some experience in the design of cameras, and the Elecam was brought to us for comment.

It was immediately clear that the designers knew only the first thing about elephants – that they were big – hence the camera did not have to be “discreet”. They did not realise that elephants also:

  • Swim, with only the “periscope” up
  • Squirt themselves (often!) with muddy water and dust
  • Although not that fast, have LOTS of momentum when crashing through trees
  • Are intelligent and inquisitive

to name the immediately obvious ones.

Although dirt obscuration was anticipated to be a problem and the prototype camera was equipped with a window washer, the tank capacity was inadequate. It was however decided to use it as is for the initial testing in the Kruger National Park – but of course with the hope that it would be successful and sufficient to complete the program first time round.

The Journey

The adventure started one rainy day in January 2000. This was not just any rainy day, but was the early stages of the flood period remembered for Rosita Pedro, the Mozambican baby, born in a tree. The helicopter that picked us up in Centurion was loaded to capacity and we v-e-r-y slowly gained height on our way to Skukuza. The weather report indicated that the cloud base was too low to get over the Drakensberg under VFR (Visual Flight Rule) conditions, and the pilot therefore headed for Haenertsburg, flying in driving rain all the way. When we reached the outskirts of the township, the streets were muddy rivulets, and the helicopter was brought to a hover to assimilate the situation. It was almost surrealistic the way the collective pitch lever between the two front seats were pulled up  like the handbrake of a car, as if at an intersection, Piet Otto slowly rotating the helicopter to pick the best route. This turned out to be down the Olifants River Valley, and what a ride!

All the passengers were on look-out duty for cables strung across the river by the locals, used to transfer their possessions and gatherings from one side to the other – we were that low. Having spent many hours in helicopters prior to this, it was unusual to have most of the environment above and around, rather than below, as is the norm.

We broke cover as the gorge opens up at the bottom of the Abel Erasmus pass and from there had a clear run via Hoedspruit to our destination.

 The Equipment

As the video image was to be transmitted live from the camera, a receiving point was required. This was provided by the SAPS Air Wing in the form of a loan mobile receiving station. This consisted of a trailer resembling a horse-box, with a pneumatic mast with an omni-directional antenna on top which could be extended to 30m, providing good reception coverage. This system is normally used by the Air Wing as receiving station for the stabilized cameras they have on their helicopters.

As the transmission frequency was dependent on line-of-sight between transmitter and receiver being maintained (pretty much like the signal between a cell phone and the nearest tower), the terrain where it was set up was also chosen to be relatively even, so that the signal would not be obscured by tall geographical features.

This MGRS (Mobile Ground Receiving Station) was hauled along from the Johan Coetzee SAPS Airwing HQ in Pretoria to Skukuza by SANHU, where we camped – within the staff village – for the duration of the trials.

The Process

The procedure was planned to be executed as follows:

  • The chosen elephant would be separated from the herd by cutting it off with the Route 66 helicopter

  • The elephant would then be darted from the helicopter after rounding it up to a location as close as possible to where the ground crew was waiting on one of the “no entry” roads
  • Next, the collar would be installed. This consisted of a wide synthetic strap with the camera in the centre, and the two ends going round to below the elephant’s neck, attached to a car battery in a box. The battery provided both 12V power to the camera and served as counter-balance to retain the camera position central to the head of the elephant.
  • Conservation personnel would be in continuous attendance and monitor the vital signs of the elephant. One of their activities would be to apply water to the inside of the elephant’s ears as coolant, as these are an elephant’s radiators. Due to the flapping action required to make it work, this cooling function would now be absent. It’s a similar situation as when a car’s radiator fan stops working when travelling slowly – overheating being the result.

  • Once the camera was fitted, the elephant would be given an antidote to counter the knock-out drug – after everyone that was not absolutely required, had climbed to safety on the support vehicles.

 The above procedure was executed pretty much as planned. The elephant got up groggily and headed off, with a clear picture transmitted for almost a minute, after which the battery below the elephant‘s neck swung to the side, with the result that the camera at the other end, rotated to behind the elephants ear. From then on, only a black signal was received.

The predicament was now that the elephant could not be darted again to adjust the camera, as it would be too violent a shock to its system . It was therefore left to rejoin the herd for the next week or so, until the after-effects of the drugs had cleared its system.

After re-darting, the camera was removed and extensively reworked – actually a completely locally (South African) redesigned housing with a more tamper-proof antenna – the elephant had removed this during an exploratory feel around the back of its head with its trunk – window wipers, high-pressure water, larger reservoir  – and fully submersible, just in case.

The second time, things went much better. Except that the elephant broke the front window by passing too close underneath an overhanging branch, and a spare had to be refitted.


Car Trouble

In addition to the above fun and games, we also had to field a challenge on another front. On the way back to Skukuza, while stopping at the Sabie camp, we noticed water forming a puddle underneath one of the SANHU Land Rovers. Opening up the bonnet revealed that the plastic fitting attaching the cabin heater pipe to the manifold had cracked, allowing the pressurized coolant to escape.

After the radiator was re-filled and a few spare cans of water loaded, we headed (very slowly) back to Skukuza. Not very long after, the temperature went into the red again as too much water had been pushed out. Judging by the distance covered since leaving Sabie, it was clear that even with all the extra water carried, it would not be possible to reach Skukuza. We stopped and gingerly got out of the car – after all, this was lion country – opened the bonnet again and removed the cracked cap. If the hole in the manifold could be plugged, the water would hold, as the heater circuit was something that would not be missed at this time.

The Discovery director who was travelling with us, got a hacksaw out of the toolbox, walked into the bushes – not too deep, mind you – and cut a branch which at its thickest, was just bigger than the hole in the manifold. This was shortened to more or less wine cork length and hammered into the hole to seal it. Not only did we get back to Skukuza like this, but the vehicle also made it back to Johannesburg after the mission, where it could be properly repaired. It however remains a mystery why this part, considering the standard application of a Defender series Land Rover, was made of plastic to start with. What were they thinking?

During our stay, the same Director decided to interview me – as the so-called technical specialist – in terms of what my ideas on the next evolution of this type of “candid camera-in-the-herd” footage would be. I don’t know why this is so – perhaps some film star reader can advise – but it is extremely difficult to think – never mind talk sense – when you know that you are being filmed. Perhaps, if the camera was some distance off it would be easier, but in this case it was in-your-face.

Seeing that I was put on a spot, this called for a wildly imaginative answer – shooting from the hip, as they say – so I blabbered that having to date seen footage from cameras on birds, a cheetah and now on an elephant, it may be opportune to open up a new frontier, and put a camera on a hippopotamus.

Strangely enough, not too long ago, I saw footage of exactly that. Not sure whether it was the same director, though.

During said interview, it crossed my mind that if they ever should do this, I dearly hoped not to be  involved, as in spite of their docile appearance and cutesy looks I can only imagine that when a hippo wakes up, it is even more bedonnerd than an elephant.


PS       At the time of making the film, Afslurpie was the second oldest elephant cow in Addo. However, since the recent death of Avryl, she has now become the most senior elephant, aged 61.

For more info on SANHU’s activities, go to

To order the Ele Tele DVD, contact Antoinette at


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