Counting Elephants in Tsavo – Worth Every Drop of Sweat
It’s been a hectic three days already of counting elephants and other large mammals in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem. So far, 26 blocks have been covered – some 26,200 km2 of the total 43 blocks which cover 46,437 km2. Progress, so far, is great. That is in terms of the survey area coverage. However, it’s not been an easy ride for those making the coverage.
It’s been a hectic three days already of counting elephants and other large mammals in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem. So far, 26 blocks have been covered – some 26,200 km2 of the total 43 blocks which cover 46,437 km2.
Progress, so far, is great. That is in terms of the survey area coverage. However, it’s not been an easy ride for those making the coverage. The dry Tsavo heat is unforgiving, not only to the wildlife but also to those who are counting. Imagine being stuck in a big oven for 5 straight hours – which has a cool slow start before the real baking begins from 10.00 a.m. onwards – and being expected to concentrate on counting, navigation and data recording. Luckily, there are also reserve observers who are working in shifts during a refuelling session. On the eve of the census, insightful briefs were given, by the various team leaders.
For example, the methodology of the count, the animal species codes and what to record. Since the census is not limited to live elephant but carcasses as well. So a briefing was given on how to age an elephant carcass from the air and what action to take given the state of the carcass whether fresh, recent, old and very old.
One census crew on landing at the airbase showed photos of tusks of an elephant carcass that were retrieved in one of the blocks covered yesterday. It is estimated that the elephant died of old age - a ripe 70-75 years. Other briefs were peppered with humour, but had all the gravity a total elephant count deserves.
For example, the pilot’s team leader who literally ordered observers not to overindulge in beer the night before or boiled eggs for breakfast. It’s a necessary advisory as some get unsettled tummies in the hot and turbulent environment despite taking air sickness pills. Should an observer need to be discontinued due to sickness, then a landing is made and a switch with those in the reserve list for the day as the ill participant is taken care of. I overheard that some pilots in past censuses are known to advise the Rear Seat Observers (RSO) to restrict the contents of their sickness on the Front Seat Observer, and not the pilot.
With such an advisory, there are only three options - follow the orders to the letter or use the bag provided before take-off or not get sick at all. For those of us, like me, who are both lucky and unlucky to be grounded and not airborne, we are either downloading and analysing data or giving logistical support for various interested census stakeholders. Being grounded comes with its advantages.
Yesterday, a large bull elephant ambled close to the airstrip during take-off – about 6.30 a.m. He was not counted despite being so close to the operation base of the census and raising his trunk to our attention. The blocks are being covered systematically and they have yet to survey the census base. Six hours hours later, we came across 12 large bulls - both sub-adults and old - while on our way back from the Taita Sanctuary to the operational base.
They were in a wooded area, enjoying the shade and a meal. All were very relaxed and it was my first time to come across so many bulls at one place and just by the road side. I watched one scratch his eye with the trunk ever so gently, a first sighting for me, but as excited as I was, I couldn’t point out to my colleagues who each were concentrating on other individuals.
Such moments, in the tranquillity of nature and wildlife, are worth every drop of sweat and penny that the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem census of elephants has cost, and the larger vision of protecting these social beings for posterity. --EW