Mayhem in Mwakoma
Report by International Intern, Ryan Wilkie
It is mid-December and after the late rains crops are just beginning to sprout down in Tsavo. Even so the research camp has been abuzz with activity. We have sent multiple teams out each day for the past week to visit farms in both Mwakoma and Mwambiti after receiving troubling reports of multiple farms being invaded by elephants. In one night as many as 5 farms were visited by elephants and it is the job of the Elephants and Bees teams to go out to each farm to collect data and assess the damages caused.
We ask the farmers how many elephants they have seen, if they noticed any younger elephants that might indicate family groups, what time the elephants were seen and other information that might give us a better idea of the elephants’ activities. We will also look for signs of elephant activity and footprints to track their movements in and around the farms and so extrapolate data on their behaviour – where they have entered the farm, where they exit, how they move through it and, where they exist, how they have reacted to the beehive fences.
Drawing out elephant movements can be tricky at the best of times when two or three tracks intersect or elephants double back over their old footprints making the tracker’s job incredibly difficult as they try to determine exactly how many elephants were present and how they moved around. Things are complicated further when there are not 2 or 3 but 8 or 10 elephants each producing distinct tracks that come together at particular spots and then split to go off in different directions.
This information, however, is vital to understanding the deterrent effects of the beehive fences. We have recorded several incidences where elephants have approached a farm and then, seemingly having spotted the hives, turned around heading back into the forest. We have also noticed that once in the farm the beehives still have the same effect causing elephants to change direction in order to avoid them. Unfortunately this can lead to the elephants getting trapped in the farm until they either find the courage to break out through the fence or they are able to navigate to the edges of the fence and find their way out that way.
We will often try to identify the routes elephants take when raiding tracking them back as far as we can to then follow the same path as the elephants – literally walking in the footsteps of giants! It can be incredibly exhilarating when you pick up the tiniest signs of elephant activity and follow them trying to get inside the head of the elephants and understand the decisions they make. Then when you find a fresh print or dung heap and know that just a couple of hours ago the elephants were standing where you were – it is also important to know when to stop as encountering elephants in the thick vegetation could have unfortunate consequences.
This past week this kind of tracking was deemed too risky as we observed that the elephants were not returning to protected areas but instead remained in the area around Mwakoma and Mwambiti hiding out in the patches of thick vegetation between the shambas (farms). Measuring their tracks and counting the number of distinct patterns we could tell that there were certainly a number of large groups in the area, but none of us could quite believe it when farmers would tell us they had seen 80 or more in the area. It was a number too astonishing for an area this small. It was only when we were called out to the water pan north of the research centre that we came to understand the scale of the problem.
Lucy received word that large groups of elephants had been spotted drinking from the water pan and so we set out in a vehicle to catch a glimpse of these troublemakers. We pulled up at Karakara’s shamba to make the rest of the journey on foot, approaching quickly but cautiously to get a chance of seeing the elephants without chasing them away. There were 30 of them. We only had a few seconds with them until several members of the group raised their trunks into the air like periscopes, testing the air to identify this new scent that was suddenly blowing their way.
We had been given away. After only a few snaps to given a sense of the size of the group the elephants turned tail and ran into the bushes. We waited for a while to see if they would return, after a few more courageous or stubborn individuals tentatively approached the water pan trunks held high but they were eventually chased off by a herd of cattle being driven to the water pan for a drink.
When we returned to the vehicle we were greeted by Karakara who was in hysterics! I was not sufficiently well versed in Swahili to understand what he was saying but from his animated hand gestures I could tell he was laughing at our effectiveness as elephant deterrents. He was in stitches as he recounted how we chased away the elephants in seconds with nothing more than our scent and had us debating the merits of a sunscreen-based aerosol dispersal deterrent on our way back to camp!