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Partners in the Sky

Tracking Wild Elephants

Tracking elephants allows Smithsonian researchers to determine why, when, where, and how wild elephants move. It also permits scientists to evaluate different management strategies to reduce human-elephant conflicts and maintain healthy wild elephant herds. For example, Smithsonian scientists use satellite tracking to:

  • Assess the effectiveness of elephant translocations: Crop-raiding elephants are moved from agricultural landscapes to protected areas.
  • Monitor electric fencing: high-voltage electric fences are erected around villages and agricultural fields to keep elephants out.
  • Identify areas that need to be set aside as buffer zones and corridors to provide critical and connected habitats to remaining wild elephants.
  • Monitor elephant health and condition.

Satellite tracking of wild elephants is essential for better understanding their ecology and for developing effective conservation strategies. Photo by Centre for Conservation and Research.

Tracking and Saving Madhumali

Madhumali is a female elephant living in an area of Sri Lanka with human-elephant conflict and rapid development. She was collared earlier this year to assess how she and her herd were adapting to the devleopment and how developmental activites could be managed to minimize detrimental effects on the elephants. Soon after the capture, Prithiviraj Fernando, lead scientist for the Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka, and Wildlife Department veterinarians discovered that Madhumali was limping. Close inspection revealed that a wire snare was constricting her right rear leg and had cut deep into the flesh.


Once a wild elephant has been darted and tranquilized, the field team lead by Prithiviraj Fernando from the Centre for Conservation and Research moves in to place a satellite collar around her neck. Photo by Centre for Conservation and Research.

Poachers leave thousands of wire snares for small game in forests throughout Asia. While not intended for elephants, elephants often get their feet or even their trunks caught in these snares. Although not immediately lethal, these snares can cause festering wounds and infections which often lead to a slow and painful death of the elephant.


Veterinarians remove the wire snare which was embedded in Madhumali’s foot, disinfect the deep wound and treat her with antibiotics. Photo by Centre for Conservation and Research.

In the case of Madhumali, it was easy to locate here using her satellite collar, tranquilize her, remove the wire snare, and treat her and the wound with antibiotics. Madhumali has since been recovering slowly, being constantly monitored using the satellite transmitter.


Using the satellite transmitter, scientists can locate elephants like Madhumali in the field for observation, health check-ups, and veterinary treatment. Photo by Centre for Conservation and Research.

Thanks to Auckland Zoo for providing the collar for Madhumali.