Tsavo Elephant Migration Study – Satellite Collaring – Day Three: Ups and Downs

This is the one truly pristine ecosystem sufficient to accommodate significant herds of elephants and other large mammals. It is the great hope, especially if we can establish migratory corridors to the north and south to secure these magnificent animals.

Drugs take effect the elephant bull during a collaring exercise conducted by IFAW and KWS scientists in Tsavo. IFAW/D. Willetts

At 6.30 a.m. sharp, we rendezvous at the airstrip where the chopper is for briefing by and take-off with Capt. Anthony Kiroken, a truly unique flyer. As a Maasai by cultural background, Capt. Kiroken knew from an early age that he wanted to soar the skies. He realized his childhood dream and is now the Chief Pilot for fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft for Kenya Wildlife Service. He also brings with him an intricate understanding of the bush-environment and its animals. A rare combination.

As we fly over the central part of Tsavo National Park I am reminded why I have always loved this Park. It is vast (the two Tsavo parks together are larger than New Jersey) and totally pristine. It is a harsh, dry terrain punctuated by water holes and rivers which can always be identified by the bright outcroppings of green vegetation nourished by them.

This is the one truly pristine ecosystem sufficient to accommodate significant herds of elephants and other large mammals. It is the great hope, especially if we can establish migratory corridors to the north and south to secure these magnificent animals.

We land and join the scientific, technical and security teams on the ground. The first collaring is a bull, and what a bull he was! He was truly massive, over five tons in estimated weight and over fifty years of age. Most animals drop within 3-5 minutes; he was still going at 8. Pouring water over him to keep cool (the only job the team correctly entrusted to me), I had the flash thought that these are exactly the type of elephants that trophy hunters target. For the life of me, the thought of killing such an exquisite animal with millions of years of development for fun is just beyond my understanding.

When the Vet, Dr. Jeremiah Poghon, gave the clear out call before administering the reviver shot, no one hesitated, I can assure you.  First, the ear covering the eye flapped over (turning on his cooling system—described in Day Two). Then he lifted his head once, went down again and then another successful trial, stood up, looked around and was off.

IFAW and KWS scientists collar a one-tusked bull in Tsavo. IFAW/D. Willetts.

We now run into a glitch. The collar receivers are quite intricate (and expensive). When broadcasting at set intervals, the solar batteries charge up. To test them, all eight were laid out on tables in the sun. Five worked, but three failed. They would have to be sent back to the South African manufacturer, with a three-four week delay before tagging the last three elephants. So things go.

One nice thing: I noticed that two of the vehicles in the operation were from International Fund for Animal Welfare donors; this gave me the chance to shoot a short video and got some good stills as well. It is great to have a chance to actually show their support being so well utilized. Without our donors, none of this happens.

Before leaving to go back to Park’s Headquarters, I have the honor of addressing the whole team at the local airstrip. What I said was quite simple: that I had learned an enormous amount through participation, gaining a far greater knowledge of the complexity and risk of this type of exercise than I would have behind a desk. And that I have had the opportunity to witness a number of interventions in the wild in my career and that this was the most skillful and best organized I had ever witnessed. I meant every word.

So now it was off to Amboseli to help plan IFAW’s next elephant habitat challenge.

-- FO


Comments: 1

7 years ago

I can't imagine being that close to such a wise and awe-inspiring animal. There is no animal eye I'd rather stare in.

Also, what a pleasure it must have been to see that IFAW money was being put to good use.

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