Collaring Tsavo Elephants Along the SGR Railway
Report from International Intern, Emma Settle
I was extremely fortunate during the final week of my internship to be involved with an elephant collaring operation conducted by Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) in partnership with Save the Elephants and the Tsavo Trust. The aim of the operation was to assess elephant movements in conjunction with infrastructural development around the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), which is currently under construction and will be finished in 2017. The data that the collars will provide will better inform researchers on elephant movements in and out of Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The railway that will run between Nairobi and Mombasa, has ‘underpasses’ at certain locations to allow elephants to pass through. The satellite collars will allow researchers to gather vital information on which are the most important underpasses and why. This information is significant for informing future infrastructure projects in Kenya, so that the underpasses and corridors that elephants use most frequently around the SGR can be protected. Further information that can be assessed through the elephant movements is how and why elephants are using the underpasses to enter community lands to raid farmer’s crops. If we can better understand human-elephant conflict within the communities situated close to the park will help to inform the elephant management plans for KWS.
We successfully managed to collar 10 elephants (5 cows and 5 bulls) between Mtito Ndei and Bachuma Gate, in addition to collaring elephants near the corridor between Sagalla Hill and Maungu. The collaring team was lead by Dr. Ben Okita, who as Head of Operations for Save the Elephants competently took charge of logistics and was in communications with Richard Moller of the Tsavo Trust, the pilot in the fixed wing plane, and Major John Kayanda the helicopter pilot for the KWS darting chopper. When a suitable candidate had been found, Richard would relay the information to Ben and then the KWS helicopter would be called to the scene. The team in the helicopter consisted of the pilot Major John Kayanda, David Daballen Head of STE Field Operations, Chris Leadismo also STE and the KWS vet Jerimiah Poghorn. Once Ben gave the go ahead, the ground team would move into the bush and drive to where the tranquilized elephant had fallen. The elephant was typically immobilized for only 20-25 minutes and the whole team worked very proficiently to ensure the operation was as efficient and safe as possible. Potential problems that can arise during these operations include the elephants falling on their chest; this can be very dangerous as it interferes with their respiratory system. One challenge that can arise when collaring a large bull is the size of his tusks; the sheer weight of the tusks can inhibit the elephant from rising up after the reversal drugs have been administered. In every collaring procedure during this operation the elephants recovered fully and without any injuries, due entirely to the skills and experience of the KWS vets and the collaring team.
The Elephants and Bees Project interns were given the responsibility of taking important measurements that included: shoulder height, length of body, foot diameter and circumference, tusk length and circumference. In addition, tails hairs were extracted for analysis, as they provide information on the nutritional history of the elephant. Typically bull elephants were an easier operation than females who often had young or who had other members of the herd trying to protect the tranquilised cow. At some points during the collaring procedure the helicopter was used to try and deter herd members away from a female who had been darted, as well as sometimes trying to separate a mother from her calf. Whilst it can sound distressing to temporarily separate a female herd, especially when an elephant has a calf, it is critical to collect data from cows as well as bulls. In the operations that occurred when an elephant was darted who had a calf, the scientists reassured us that it would not take them long to reunite, as their communication abilities are so strong. The benefit of having the fixed wing plane was that Richard was able to keep an eye on proceedings from the air, without any disturbance to the elephants and was able to see females reunite with their herd following an operation.
As though an elephant collaring operation wasn’t enough excitement for one week, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to fly with Frank Pope in his Cessna 185 when we had finished the collaring operations one morning. It was a great way to see from the air how the SGR was impacting on elephant movements and the potential problems that such significant developments may cause. It also prompted a greater respect for the KWS helicopter pilot who has to fly with enormous skill to enable the vet to accurately dart an elephant, particularly when they are in a herd with the elephants running in front of one another.
It was a fantastic week and I felt enormously privileged to have witnessed such an important and memorable operation. It was great to see Save the Elephants, KWS and the Tsavo Trust work so collaboratively in order to successfully collar ten elephants in the targeted areas. I know that the data will be hugely valuable to protect elephants as further development and infrastructure continues over the coming years. My time during the elephant collaring operation and the whole internship has given me a deeper understanding of human-elephant conflict and prevention strategies that can benefit local communities who are very much in need of help and support. The internship has furthered my passion for African wildlife and my commitment to help threatened species and the communities that live alongside them.