The Search for a Poached Tsavo Elephant Tracking Collar
Field report by Dr Lucy King
Head of Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program, STE
When we heard that one of our 10 collared elephants had been shot and poached last year we were all in shock. Kenani had only been darted to fit a state-of-the-art satellite tracking collar 3 months previously and was sending us back spectacular hourly tracking data of how he was crossing the newly developed railway and moving comfortably between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. We had seen him move deep inside Tsavo West in early July 2016 and so assumed he was safe there.
Photo: Kenani being collared by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Save the Elephants (STE) and the Tsavo Trust team in March 2016.
Then at 6:30am on July 9th 2016 we got the dreaded alarm on our mobile phones. This was a signal that the collar had stopped moving and then had gone dead. We feared the worst and a team was despatched to the area to find out what had happened. The team found a brutally poached elephant. Kenani’s magnificent body (he was a particularly HUGE bull elephant) had been de-faced and his tusks missing. Utterly tragic.
Since July we have been unable to find Kenani’s collar. Two teams went in to look around the body but no luck. Two aerial teams have since flown over head looking for the signal both from Tsavo Trust and Save the Elephants and each time the bush has been thick and the signal not clear. Last week however, Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton thought he would take one more flight over the carcass area and sure enough! There was the VHF signal beeping away from Kenani’s collar. The signal was some distance from the body (now a pile of sun-bleached bones in the dust) so having taken a new GPS position Iain sent it down to us at the STE Elephants and Bees Research Center and we co-ordinated a mission with KWS to find the “missing Kenani collar”.
Photo: We started our search at the carcass, looking for any more clues or bullet casings but quickly moved on with our mission to look for the lost collar before the sun became too hot.
Photo: Elephants and Bees Intern Rohan Vince and PhD student George Troup set off following the beep-beep of the VHF signal from the collar to track it through the bush.
Photo: Dr Lucy King zones in on the collar location
As we neared in, Lucy picked up the signal from a specific area of bush and we all zoned in on the 50m area where the signal was stronger. Then Steve, the KWS Researcher, stumbled across a TINY pice of the collar sticking out of the soil! The collar had been buried beneath our feet. No wonder we were picking up the signal all around us and couldn’t see it!
Photo: E&B Team members Hesron Nzumu and Kennedy Zakeer started to dig away the soil to reveal the edge of the tracking collar before we realised that the collar belting had been cut off and the collar had been buried in a hole with the head of the collar facing downwards into the earth – a sure way to stop the satellite tracking signal from reaching the skies and sending us the location of the collar.
Photo: Kennedy finally helps to pull the collar head out of the soil and there it was – STE logo on the collar and the exact signal of Kenani’s collar.
This is an achievement for our team. Not only can we and KWS get clues about what happened that day, and the crime is still under investigation, but we can also learn from this fascinating incident and hopefully respond quicker in future should a collar disappear like this again from a poached tracked animal (lets hope that never happens…..)
For now, our team is happy to have helped with this mystery but still filled with sadness that this magnificent bull had to die just for someone to sell the teeth from off the front of his face. What an utter and shameful waste of a precious life.
Photo credits: R. Labanowski; R. Moller, K. Zakeer, L.King