Spotlight Kenya: Satellite-tagging Tsavo elephants to reduce conflict and boost security
The Kenya Wildlife Service and the International Fund for Animal Welfare recently collared nine elephants--six males and three females--bringing the total of elephants being monitored in the vast Tsavo ecosystem to twelve. Their tracked movements will assist in mapping out elephant migratory corridors, effectively equipping the Parks’ management to take intervention measures to mitigate human-elephant conflict and mount security operations against poachers.
Dr Jeremiah Poghon, a vet with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) prepares darts with the opiate used to immobilise elephants while Dr David Ndeereh looks on. These drugs are so strong that a mere scratch on a human being is lethal. By this time, a fixed-wing aircraft flies around the site with an elephant biologist trying to spot possible collaring candidates. The ground team - made up of scientists, capture personnel, media, support staff and security rangers - and the helicopter team, normally assemble in a specified area for a final chat as the vet prepares his tools. Normally, the ground team departs in the wee hours of the morning from its operational base to the sites while the helicopter team waits for a positive radio call from the fixed-wing aircraft pilot. Every single person in the collaring operation has a role to play and their actions are swift and almost choreographed – the welfare of the elephant is of the essence, and the team ensures that it is collared and revived in the shortest time possible.
Once the biologist in the fixed-wing aircraft has identified sites with possible candidates, he radios the chopper pilot, who dextrously manoeuvres his helicopter with two elephant biologists and the vet aboard to that general area to identify a candidate. A bull has to be mature, preferably 30 years and above, while the female should be 20 years plus and neither pregnant nor lactating. In this image, four males, which split into two, were spotted. The biologists then zeroed in on one pair and selected the candidate.
Aim and shoot
Dr Jeremiah Poghon, the KWS vet, aims and darts the elephant with the ease of the skilled marksman he is, taking only three seconds to aim and shoot. From there on, those in the helicopter monitor the darted elephant while the pilot gently herds the pachyderm to as open an area as possible for the ground team to work efficiently and effectively.
Sometimes a darted elephant can take up to ten minutes to go down, some less.
The ground team patiently waits for the radio calls from the helicopter on the position of the darted elephant.
Securing the Elephant
Seconds after the elephant goes down, the KWS capture team and another vet rush to it to secure the trunk, check its temperature and breathing. The animal should also be in lateral position. If on its knees, a dangerous position, the elephant is pushed to one side. Water is constantly poured on the animal to cool it. Elephants cool their bodies by flapping their enormous ears. Blood is pumped from the aorta to the ears which have large veins. The flapping cools the blood by two degrees centigrade before it is circulated to the rest of the body. If the darted elephant is female, the family stays close by. The fixed-wing aircraft swings in then to herd away the family to ensure the safety of the teams working to collar the elephant. In addition, for security measure, rangers are on guard about 15 metres radius from the immobilised elephant to cover the ground team.
Vets check the elephant's general state of health and take tissue, blood and faecal samples while the scientists take measurements of the animal with the first as the neck circumference for the capture team to cut the collar length to fit snugly – neither tight nor loose. They also take other physical bio-data such as number of tusks, body size, age range and gender. Another scientist deftly checks the folds and crevices of the elephant to collect ticks and other parasites. This is one of the six elephants recently collared that was mono-tusked.
Once the neck size is known, the capture team measures and cuts the collar with a hack saw and machete. The collar is made up of a hard rubber belt, a transmitter pack and a lead weight. A hooked wire is used to pull the belt under the immobilised elephant. A clearance of at least 6 inches between the collar and neck is allowed.
Plates and nuts fixed
The transmitter pack is usually placed centrally on top of the elephant's neck and the lead weight at the bottom. Several plates and nuts are used to fix the lead weight. The weight keeps the transmitter pack in the correct position to pick satellite signals.
Each site has a name and that forms the first initial of the collared elephant. The second initial is the gender. If sites have a similar first letter, then another letter, normally a consonant, is used. As the capture team fixes the collar into place, the assigned painter does his job. Painting the elephant ensures ease of recognition while being tracked on the ground – a post-monitoring measure. As elephants scratch themselves against trees or enjoy mud wallows, the painted eventually rubs off in a couple of months.
On your feet
Once the collar is fixed, the vet orders everyone back into their vehicles. It is an order that must be followed, else it may prove fatal. Once the vet ascertains that the full team is in their vehicles, he gives the elephant a revival jab and hastily makes for his own vehicle. On average, it took 11 minutes for the IFAW and KWS teams to fix the collar from the time the elephant collapsed. It may take a minute or two for the elephant to get on its feet and amble away. If she is a female, she simply communicates with her family members and soon gets reunited.
Weighing 13.5 kilogrammes, a collar on an elephant can be compared to a single strand necklace on a human. The transmitter on the collar emits a signal which is tracked by scientists on computer. If retained, the collar can stay for as long as 20 months. It is manufactured with a drop-off mechanism so there is usually no need to recapture the animals to retrieve the collars.