Tsavo Elephant Migration Study - Satellite Collaring - Day Two: Risk and Reward

I can only describe Day Two of my participation in the collaring of elephants for satellite tracking as transformative. I have learned an enormous amount in my two days regarding the huge importance of this study, the extreme complexity of its execution and the inherent risks associated with it.


Fred O’Regan of IFAW pours water to cool an elephant as it is being collared by IFAW and KWS scientists in Tsavo Park. The eight collared elephants will help in mapping out migratory patterns, corridors and reduce conflict with humans.

I can only describe day two of my participation in the collaring of elephants for satellite tracking as transformative. I have learned an enormous amount in my two days regarding the huge importance of this study, the extreme complexity of its execution and the inherent risks associated with it.

The importance is as follows. The two greatest threats facing elephants are poaching for the illegal ivory trade and the loss and fragmentation of habitat. In regard to habitat, Tsavo is of immense importance. Encompassing 21,000 sq. kilometers of park space and an additional 22,000 sq. kilometers of  “dispersal” area, it is the largest pristine habitat for elephants in Africa. Tsavo Park itself is home to an estimated 12,572 elephants. (This is a very clean number as IFAW and Kenya Wildlife Service—KWS— completed a total aerial count in February).

If we cannot uphold the future for Tsavo elephants, it is difficult to envision any future for elephants roaming free as nature intended. Kenya is one the most progressive nations on earth in protecting elephants and other wildlife as part of its national heritage.  IFAW and KWS share both complementary professional skills and a policy commitment to protect elephant habitat and to ban any all trade in ivory.

With all this said, the future of Tsavo elephants is by no means guaranteed. It will depend largely on their ability to successfully migrate seasonally for food and water, and to avoid human-elephant conflict. We must have scientific data on where and when they migrate to establish protected migratory corridors that allow for seasonal migration and avoidance of human settlements. Without this it is all guess work and no such study has been done since 1972.

This study is critical and, frankly, it should be because collaring is a complex exercise with some attendant risks both to the elephants and the people involved. Indeed, in 2008, a Kenyan veterinarian working on a collaring exercise in Ethiopia was killed (I will explain how this happened below).  To reduce risk for the elephant, the darting must be on target, the dosage appropriate for the size of the animal and the time of immobilization as short as possible. For human protection, sound rehearsed procedures with strict protocols have to be followed by the four teams involved: These teams are: scientific team (setting research goals and process); the spotting and darting team; the technical team (carrying out the collaring process on the ground; and the security team (armed KWS Rangers who secure the collaring area). In all, more than 25 professionals carried out each collaring.

A description of today’s collaring work will illustrate all of this. The goal for this week is to collar eight elephants: a mature bull and a mature female (over 20 years old that is neither pregnant nor with a calf ) from four geographically distinct groups within Tsavo.

Our first collaring was of a female. To start, a fixed- wing aircraft crew is used to spot the exact location of an appropriate group. They radio the helicopter which has two biologists and a wildlife veterinarian on board.  Hovering near the group, the elephant research scientists (Steve Njumbi, IFAW Eastern Africa Head of Programmes, and Elphas Bitok, Senior KWS Biologist) select the female and the pilot (Captain Anthony Kiroken of KWS’ Air Wing) dexterously gets closer to the group and separates the targeted female from her family.  The vet on board (Dr. Poghon, who is also a trained marksman) darts the elephant with a carbon dioxide-charged gun. (The opiate, used to immobilize an elephant of up to five tons, is so strong that a dosage of even 0.01 ml would kill a human!) The helicopter then lands, signaling to the technical team on the ground that the elephant has been darted; the team follows the elephant until it drops over.

A bull elephant goes down after being darted for collaring by IFAW and KWS scientists in Tsavo Park. The chopper and ground team ensures that the darted elephant is secure, and drive away any other elephants around so that the scientists can collar the immobilised elephant.

Things immediately go into high gear; key measurements are as are samples of blood, tissue fecal matter and ticks.  The radio collar is cut to the specific circumference of the neck All the while, a second vet monitors breathing and temperature. He can abort the procedure at any time if vital signs decline.  A steady application of water is poured over the animal (I helped with this as pouring water was about the only thing I qualified for). Elephants have an extraordinary cooling system. Blood pumped from the aorta first goes to the ears which have huge veins. The constant flapping of the ears fans and cools the blood by two degrees centigrade before it moves to the rest of the body. Being immobilized, ears included, the elephant can overheat.  Also, while immobilized, the elephant is still conscious and knows what is going on. To say the least, he or she is not happy.  Hence, time is really of the essence.

Once the collar is secured, the technical team  paints an identification number on the elephant and withdraws into their vehicles, as does the security team who also make sure that all media people at the site withdraw as well. By protocol, the vet checks that everyone is in vehicles facing away from the elephant (away from any possible charge). He then injects a reviving shot and clears away himself.  Elephants differ as to the time they take regain their feet and to their behavior once erect. Most walk away but it is never a sure thing.  In the tragic case in Ethiopia, the veterinarian apparently misjudged the revival time, and stayed near the animal for one last picture. A fatal mistake!.

To say the least, no such chance was allowed by the IFAW/KWS team. I have rarely been as impressed as I was both by the technical skill level and the management and communication involved in this very tricky exercise. It was a flawless performance. Four elephants were collared today. All were properly darted; all revived with a good steadiness and walked away. The average time of immobilization was an astounding twelve minutes!

The future welfare of Tsavo elephants truly advanced today.

-- FO

Comments: 5

7 years ago

[...] after 52 days of following the elephants that were collared in March 2011, two interesting observations can already be [...]

7 years ago

[...] Read Fred’s previous post from his trip to Africa here. [...]

7 years ago

While reading this" I felt my heart begin to race~ why can't people learn to connect with nature, rather than destroy it's unsubscribable beauty~

7 years ago

[...] To read the next installment from Fred’s trip, click here. [...]

7 years ago

Thanks for a fascinating account. What needs to be done to stop the culling of elephants in Africa? Would my writing to the African embassy in Los Angeles help?

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