Report by international intern, Tosca Tindall
It was six months – almost to the day – from when I left Sagalla in June to when I returned on the first day of 2017, and the place is unrecognisable! When I left the April rains had turned the village into a rolling sea of African basil, morning glory and moringa; our hive occupancy was over 60% and the team was consumed with tracking Rukinga, a lone collared male crop-raider who often crossed the highway from Tsavo National Park, to wreak havoc in shambas all along the hill. Fast forward six months, and the scene is very different. November failed to deliver much-needed rain to the area, so in the place of the lush greenery that I left, we now have clouds of red dust and dried-out crops. Our hive occupancy is down to 18%, an un-heard of number for January and the regular honey-harvest for our farmers may well be in jeopardy.
The single biggest difference, however, has been in the sheer number of elephants in the area. In April, we were tracking Rukinga almost every day using his GPS alerts from his collar, sometimes for 20km or more. At the time, we had often exclaimed at how destructive his crop-raiding was; With almost a hundred elephants in our project area now, each of whom seems to have a particular predilection for maize and cassava, our farmers’ staple crops, I think back nostalgically to that time when we only had one or two elephants to track!
Last week, for the first time since I joined the project in April 2016, I saw an elephant in the field in the daytime! As Sophia Weinmann and I collected data in a farm on the edge of our project area, I looked up and saw a large bull elephant, stained red by the Tsavo dust, browsing for choice leaves in the tree-line only a stone’s throw away from where we were working. At such close-range, his size was unmistakable, but he moved with a surprising grace; using his nimble trunk to delicately select the best leaves and carry them down to his waiting mouth. After beating a hasty retreat – we were upwind of him and were keen to avoid any confrontation! – we drove back to camp. Our encounter only served to underline to me the fragility of the situation in Sagalla. With so many elephants in the area, our work managing the human-elephant conflict becomes ever more-important as we try to preserve the livelihoods of these subsistence farmers, while also protecting the Tsavo elephants.
When I haven’t been in the field, I’ve been working on compiling a database of all the images which have been taken with our camera traps in the last three years. While I do spend a lot of my time sitting at the kitchen table debating with the rest of the team whether the faint shadow on the photo shows a dog, a dikdik, or an alien, I am occasionally blown away by an extraordinarily clear photo of an elephant. Over the years, our traps have captured some incredibly significant images of our crop-raiders, providing an insight into their nightly forays into the farms. Now, as I sit in front of my laptop sorting through photos, I wonder whether one day I will find a photo of that first, extraordinary, bull elephant I saw in the field.