An Adventurous Week of Collaring Elephants
Report from International Intern, Matthew Rudolph
Elephants have always been a keystone species in Tsavo National Park. They lumber over the ecosystem with a watchful gaze that is beyond compare. Many conservationists have dedicated their lives to protecting these magnificent beasts and their home ranges. But where do these elephants live? Where do they go, and how do they get there? If you build underpasses through a railroad, do they use them? These are questions that have been asked for decades and the answers are slowly coming into focus.
In the past if you wanted to identify an elephant’s movement patterns you could track them in the bush. Spotting an elephant once or twice a week was considered intensive monitoring. Just as times change, so does technology. We are now able to tag elephants with satellite collars to give us an almost constant feed of information. Equipped with this technology, we undertook the task of collaring ten elephants in close proximity to the Standard Gauge Railway next to Tsavo National Park. These collared elephant could provide vital data regarding their movement patterns and their use of pre-built underpasses.
Three organizations came together to support a week-long operation: Kenya Wildlife Services, Save the Elephants, and Tsavo Trust. Resources were pooled together and a team was formed that consisted of aerial support, veterinarians, researchers, and a top notch collaring group.
At dawn’s first light we convened for each day’s operation, a constant feed of fatigue and adrenaline coursing through our veins. Our aerial support guided us through grasslands, savannahs, and near-impassable terrain. As soon as it was safe to get out of the vehicles a well-orchestrated team got to work. A million questions were racing through my brain. Is the elephant asleep? Are they in the right position? What other animals are around? By the time I could answer my own thoughts the team was already getting into position. Veterinarians got right to work making sure the animal was safe and secure, the collaring team was fitting the tracker to the elephant, extra hands were keeping the elephant cool, and I started gathering body measurements.
It was immediately apparent that I was in the presence of an animal much larger, stronger, and surprisingly more delicate than myself. Measuring a 50+ cm long foot next to my 17 cm hand is an experience I will never forget.
Once all teams accomplished their agendas it was time to retreat back to our vehicles and wake up our new friend. Each time I waited with baited breath, and every time I was rewarded. After the veterinarians got back in their car the elephant slowly rose up and meandered back to its original path.
While elephants will forage over long paths of land, Kenya’s fluctuating rainfall has resulted in these animals constantly moving in search of greener pastures. This can result in an unsafe proximity for humans and elephants. Our collaring work in Tsavo will help us understand the elephant’s movement patterns and provide vital data to ensure elephants and humans have a prosperous future.