Day Four: Amboseli National Park: IFAW’s Next Challenge in Kenya
That night, we convene at a lodge within Tsavo. Taking a break from answering e-mails, I go for tea. I return to the room, sit at the desk and suddenly behind me I see things thrown up in the air in the bathroom. I look in and there is a large vervet monkey emptying out my toilet kit.
Before departing for Amboseli, I had the honor of addressing the whole Elephant Collaring Team. I expressed my gratitude and my congratulations on a difficult venture that went perfectly.
Now we are off to Amboseli where the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has asked us for further assistance.
Some background on Amboseli. African elephants occupy an extraordinary array of ecosystems from deserts to lowland savannah (Tsavo) to high plateaus and even rain forests. In turn, protection measures for elephants and their habitats differ from one ecosystem to the next. Hence, there is no “silver bullet” for protecting habitats – each case merits its own distinct opportunities and challenges.
Amboseli is a good case in point. With 5,700 square kilometers, the ecosystem is a tiny fraction of Tsavo’s land mass, and currently supports an elephant population of just over 1,000. It is much greener than Tsavo and very picturesque – these wonderful pictures of elephants with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background are from Amboseli.
Amboseli faces one enormous problem: the Park is essentially surrounded by large group ranches which are communally owned by the Maasai community. To survive in the future, Amboseli needs to secure these buffer zones or “dispersal areas” to make more room for elephants and other species. This means securing these areas from subdivision and subsequent development through entering into agreements with the local community. This has proven to be a difficult task that requires the participation of KWS and other organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare. We know it will be a challenge.
I met in the late morning with two senior officials from KWS: the Assistant Director for Southern Region, Wilson Korir, and the Senior Warden for Amboseli, George Osuri. They laid out a very well thought brief through management plan for the whole area showing how vital it is for access to the dispersal area. It all hinges on gaining the agreements and cultivating goodwill with the communities. While there are some models of success, there are also examples over the past few years when land has been sub-divided by developers who have built four new lodges. This has the double-edged impact of removing land useful to elephants while adding more tourist pressure in the Park.
The meeting ends with thanks all around and I head to the Park to get a picture from the ground up from Cynthia Moss, the world renowned elephant scientist and long-term collaborator with IFAW. We pull into Cynthia’s tented camp within Amboseli. Over tea with Cynthia, we discuss the management plan which Cynthia supports. She is glad to see IFAW get involved given our past success in Meru and Tsavo, especially with local communities. She knows the difficulty, but has every reason to believe that IFAW will make a difference.
Then off to the field to visit elephants. I say “visit” because that is exactly what it is. Cynthia knows every elephant in the Park. For over thirty years, she has kept a database which identifies the members of each matriarchal group, including births and deaths.
Combining this data with close observation of behavior, Cynthia has made huge contributions to the understanding of elephant social structure, interaction and group behaviors. It is quite extraordinary to listen to Cynthia commenting on each group we encounter as she relates the history and genealogy of the individuals.
One of her current projects, supported by IFAW, is to study how groups adopt to the death of the matriarch. With the drought of 2008-2009, almost 50% of the matriarchs died. Cynthia is studying the adjustments made by each group including succession, i.e.; who takes over as matriarch? And how is this determined? With the knowledge she has of all the groups and their members, Cynthia is uniquely capable of undertaking this study.
That night, we convene at a lodge within Tsavo. Taking a break from answering e-mails, I go for tea. I return to the room, sit at the desk and suddenly behind me I see things thrown up in the air in the bathroom. I look in and there is a large vervet monkey emptying out my toilet kit. I had forgotten to close the porch door! I pick up a chair which usually scares a monkey, but not this guy. He doesn’t budge. I decide to seek professional help, so I call the desk and in walks a tall Maasai with a slingshot. One look and the monkey bolts for the door with the Maasai in hot pursuit, slinging shots on the run.
A fitting image to close out my trip to beloved Kenya.
For more information about the International Fund for Animal Welfare efforts to save animals in crisis around the world visit http://www.ifaw.org