Following in the Steps of 50-30.

Report by International Intern, Zara Ahmed

Soon after my arrival at the Elephants and Bees camp, our team climbed into our Land Cruiser and drove down to Mwambiti Village. Nashon, a Mwambiti farmer and Elephants and Bees member of staff, had sighted two bull elephants passing by his farm the previous afternoon and had called us to track them while their prints were still relatively fresh. I was thrilled—what an exciting way to start my action filled internship! This outing marked the beginning of a relationship with these two elephants, the behavior and movements of which, would continue to intrigue and perplex us over the coming month.

During this month, we would track these two elephants almost twice a week; the excursions lasting anywhere between two to five hours! On each occasion, we would be led though the bush by either Nashon or Emmanuel, both local members of the Elephants and Bees team. Tracking with these two men was always an experience. The manner in which they could spot prints was effortless and always impressed us.

Figure 1: Our two elephants (red) joined by a third elephant (grey) in Sagalla. Photo courtesy of Keith Hellyer, Wildlife Works.

On occasion, I would turn to see Nashon pointing at the red earth, chuckling to himself. He would then reveal to us his interpretation of the footprints he was seeing. In one instance, I recall him pointing out a series of human footsteps that appeared to turn back on themselves, the distance between the strides increasing dramatically. He mused that this individual had accidentally stumbled upon the elephants feeding and, in a startled panic, had turned and ran back home!

During these expeditions, we would gather data on the dimensions of hind footprints, the dimensions and composition of dung, and the direction of travel of the elephants. The intern in charge of the GPS, would be showered with constant encouragement to “BE the elephant” when faced with dense thickets of thorny Wait-a-bit. We endearingly began to refer to one of the two bulls we had exclusively been following as good ol’ 50-30 due to his very large 50cm by 30cm hind footprints. Evidence of his large size was further substantiated when we noticed a mass of red earth reaching three to four meters up one acacia tree—a mark left by the elephant after it had rubbed his body against the tree. As we continued to track the bulls’ movements over the following weeks, we started to develop a sense of their personalities and tendencies. For example, we knew 50-30’s favourite snacks were baobab fruits, tamarinds and wild berries, as shown in his dung.

Figure 1: Camera trap photo of one of the three elephants that visit the bathtubs at Sagalla Lodge. Photo courtesy of Sagalla Lodge.

After a couple of weeks, we had established that these two elephants, now joined by a third bull, would periodically and consistently walk alongside specific roads and farms, rarely actually entering. On one occasion, one of the elephants had entered Nashon’s farm only to be disappointed by the lack of crops growing—a common find in the drought stricken region. Watering holes in the area have been drying up, causing livestock depletion and crop failure, and perpetuating a harsh and inhospitable environment for the country’s wild animals. Because these animals are having to travel further afield in search of water sources, they are increasingly coming in contact with local communities. This increases the risk of human wild-life conflict.

The three elephants seemed to be remaining on the limited stretch of land between the Mombasa Highway and Sagalla Hill. In this intensely dry weather, we remained puzzled as to where the elephants were finding a substantial supply of water. On one sunny September morning, our team embarked on another one of our bi-weekly tracking expeditions. On this occasion, we were able to follow the elephants’ prints to the Ndara Ranch in Gogota where the Sagalla Lodge (a potential water source for the elephants) is situated. Upon talking with the Sagalla Lodge manager, David, we discovered that the three elephants had been visiting the Lodge for the past month! The elephants had initially been walking through the lodge to drink from the swimming pool. In order to minimize the potential danger to the guests staying at the lodge, the management started to set out two bathtubs of water twice a day on the boundary of the lodge.

Figure 2: Camera trap photo of one of the three elephants that visit the bathtubs at Sagalla Lodge. Photo courtesy of Sagalla Lodge.

The sightings of the elephants from the lodge were substantiated by a collection of stunning camera trap photos which captured a bulk of activity at the make-shift watering hole. Shown in the photos were curious water bucks, playful baboons and, sure enough, the notorious 50-30 and his two friends.

The elephants appear to be grazing on the outskirts of the Mwambiti farms at they travel between their water source at the Sagalla Lodge in Gogota and the cool base of Sagalla Hill. With clear GPS tracks of the elephants’ activity we have begun to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the movements of the enigmatic and elusive elephants that we had been familiarizing ourselves with from afar.

 

 

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