Tsavo-Mkomazi Total Survey
Report by Tsavo project officer, Esther Serem
It has been a longtime dream of mine to view the landscapes and observe how the wildlife is distributed from the air. A few weeks ago, I received a letter of invitation from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Save the Elephants (STE) to participate in the Tsavo-Mkomazi Total Aerial counts training – as you can imagine I was so excited knowing my dream was going to become real and to be part of this exciting and very important assignment. However, the letter also read “the most competent and experienced participants will be selected to participate in the aerial survey”, due to the expense of the count exercise it is essential for the survey to be conducted meticulously and therefore only the best would be selected. Keeping this in mind, and my dream to see the Tsavo conservation area from the sky I had to prepare myself for the tests.
The training took place over 3 days before the survey officially started, and included random tests to select the observers to participate in the survey (the data collecting team were lucky not to have to have their performance tested). The individuals selected were chosen depending on how fast they could spot wildlife, their eyesight and also their endurance flying. Those who did not pass left after the training – luckily I didn’t suffer any airsickness and was selected to participate in the survey.
The counts started immediately after the training with every individual assigned to a role. The census utilized two groups of individuals: data and crew team. The planes that participated had a crew of either 2 or 4 people, with each individual (pilot and observers) holding different roles. The roles of the observers included: (i) assisting in navigation especially on flight lines, start and end of flight line (ii) observing, counting and taking photos if groups of elephants were larger than 10 (iii) take GPS point (iv) recording datain a data sheet and voice recorders whereby all these was done as quickly as possible in the air because the probability of missing data was very high.
As part of the flying group, we had to take off very early every morning to increase the chances of sighting. We had up to 8 planes during the count and 87 blocks to cover so we had to work hard to get this done in the 10 days that the survey was scheduled for. I was part of the STE crew, Frank Pope was our pilot, Micheal and I were observers. The STE data team consisted of Festus, Kimanzi, Gloria and Nelson. My role was to scan for giraffes, elephants and their carcasses and buffalos as well as to record human activities such as charcoal burning, any mabati roof erected in the survey areas, cattles,donkeys, camels, shoats,and any wet natural water point. We started off flying 2.5 hours in the morning and again in the evenings (during the cooler times of the day) but towards the end we were flying for longer hours due to time pressures. To avoid the sun glare most transects in blocks were done east-west direction. After landing, we were expected to take our voice recorders, GPS and Camera’s for data downloading by data team. They were transcribing our data while confirming from datasheets we fill in the air while entering them in the database then later the observers had to confirm if the data entered was accurate.
Thanks to STE and KWS for allowing me to participate in this Aerial count – it was an amazing and useful experience in the field of conservation that I will never forget.