Collaring At-Risk Elephants in Tsavo
Report written by Lydia Tiller, Research and Science Manager HEC Program
Photos by Naiya Raja, Elephants and Bees Research Center Co-ordinator, Tsavo
Over a period of five days, a team of specialist vets, pilots, drivers, capture rangers and elephant researchers travelled more than 1,300 km across the Tsavo Conservation Area, Kenya, to collar 20 ‘at risk’ elephants. This epic and important operation was a collaborative effort between Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Save The Elephants (STE), and Tsavo Trust with aerial support from Wildlife Works and funding from Disney’s Reverse the Decline Fund and other donors. The aim is to achieve a greater understanding of the movement and behaviour of Tsavo’s elephants in order to monitor and protect them better from human-elephant conflict and poachers.
On 29 February, the collaring operation officially opened at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo West National Park with a logistics meeting involving all members of the team. There was great energy and enthusiasm in the room. And, after a heart felt speech from KWS Senior Community Warden for Tsavo, Zaineb Salim, everyone was raring to go. Zaineb talked about the importance of what we were about to do and how our work would enhance security and raise awareness about issues such as the increase in human-elephant conflict. I have studied elephant behaviour in the Maasai Mara for my PhD but never collared an elephant before and so hadn’t fully comprehended the scale of such an operation, the complicated logistics involved, and the hours of pre-planning needed before a collar is even fitted to an elephant.
The next day at 5am, the collaring operation started in earnest and I was full of excitement. The operation began with two aircraft piloted by STE and Tsavo Trust pilots scanning the chosen area for candidate elephants to collar. As soon as a bull group was spotted, the KWS chopper flew in with the experienced Tsavo vet Dr Jeremiah Poghorn and Save The Elephants’ Head of Field Operations, David Daballen. They made the decision on which bull elephant to collar, while the ground team, who were in four vehicles, eagerly awaited updates on the airband radios.
As soon as the right elephant was selected for a collar (the elephants selected had to be between 20 and 45 years old), the vet darted it with a powerful tranquiliser and the ground team set off at top speed, driving through the bush to get as close as possible to the elephant so that they were present as it went down. Adrenaline was pumping around my body and after a couple of minutes, the bull went down and it was all go. The teams drove into position around the elephant and we all jumped out of the 4×4’s. The capture rangers ensured that the elephant was breathing well, another team started to fit the collar, and the two KWS vets began treating any wounds while collecting important samples such as blood and dung. Our team gathered a variety of data from the elephant, including: measurements of the tusks, the shoulder height, its length, footprint sizes and tail hair for our isotope study. Within 20 minutes, we were done. The revival drug was administered and we waited for the bull to wake up.
After collaring this magnificent bull elephant that we named Jenga, we went on to collar a further 9 males and 10 females over the following 4 days. Each collaring event ran smoothly and very efficiently as we had such an experienced and able team. I felt very privileged to be part of this team and to be able to see these beautiful creatures up close. However, I was overcome by the grim reality facing elephants – nine of the elephants that we collared had spear and arrow wounds resulting from human-elephant conflict (HEC). This really highlighted to me the extent to which HEC is becoming an escalating problem and how we must find ways to promote a world where elephants and humans can peacefully coexist.
Collaring elephants in an area called Lake Jipe proved to be one of the most emotional experiences of the project for me. It was a stunning location – bright blue skies with a glimmering lake – right on the border with Tanzania. However, we discovered many of the elephant groups were without matriarchs in the area with just young adults looking after many young calves. Matriarchs are often poached for their large tusks so we could only assume the worst. One of the females we collared here was a youngster herself with several young calves at her side. While collaring her, the younger elephants in her family would not leave her. We had to chase them away for both the safety of the elephants and our collaring team, which is never an easy thing to do. After putting on the collar safely and quickly around her neck and watching her wake up, our team were choking back the tears. This was a very emotional moment for two reasons. Firstly, we were aware that this elephant needed to be reunited with her young family as elephants have very close family bonds; and, secondly, we had decided to name this particular elephant EQ, after Elizabeth Quat, who had fought tirelessly to bring about the ivory ban in Hong Kong. The historical ban was announced while we were in the middle of the collaring operation and we were all acutely aware of how important and significant this news was to the future welfare of wild elephants.
Putting tracking collars on elephants is a complex, risky and expensive operation but the data obtained is incredibly invaluable, providing an important and useful monitoring tool. Within just a fortnight, we have already started receiving insightful data that will help increase our knowledge about the movement patterns, behaviour and space needs of these special Tsavo elephants. This data will help us, Kenya Wildlife Service and Tsavo Trust to identify important elephant habitats and sites of increasing human-elephant conflict, which can lead us to develop new tools to help protect both elephants and farmers.