Kenya Wildlife Service complete historic elephant collaring in Tsavo National Park

Two weeks ago nine elephants were successfully fitted with satellite-radio tracking collars in Kenya’s vast Tsavo East and West National Parks by a combined team of International Fund for Animal Welfare and Kenya Wildlife Service staff.

This brings to twelve the total number of elephants fitted with satellite collars, after the first phase of a similar operation a year ago. This is the first large scale monitoring of elephant movements using satellite technology in the Tsavo parks: The last tracking initiative was done with conventional radio tracking collars deployed in 1971, forty years ago.

KWS vet, Dr Jeremiah Poghon, shot – or “darted” the elephants with a tranquilizer from a helicopter.The first four elephants were darted in the Northern sectors of Tsavo East in an operation that started at 4:00 am for the ground transport convoy.

KWS vet, Dr Jeremiah Poghon, shot – or “darted” the elephants with a tranquilizer from a helicopter. He attained a 100% “dart in” score with his first shot for all nine elephants.

The names assigned to the darted elephants combined two words that referred to the name of the site where the collaring took place, then the sex of the elephant. Hence the first elephant, darted on the morning of 19 March, was named Emusaya Male (EM), a “young” mature male adult estimated to be 30 years-old. He had only his left tusk, a feature that would become a surprisingly common during the exercise.

Next darted was Ndiandasa Male (NM), about 35 years-old and again sporting only a left tusk. NM had two arrowheads embedded in the side of his belly, a wound indicative of poaching or human-elephant conflict. Because an elephant’s thick skin does not allow accumulated pus to seep out, it can develop serious internal infections, weakening the animal and eventually causing a slow, painful death. In this case the veterinarians on-site cleaned and treated his wounds. NM is one lucky elephant!

The third elephant of the day was Ithumba Male (IM), aged 20 to 25 years. He also had only one tusk -- the left one. Thank goodness, the final animal darted that day, Sangayaya Female (SGF), a female of 20 to 25 years, had both tusks.

Another four elephants were darted and collared the next day.

A one-tusked Maktau Female (MKF).The first was a huge bull with one tusk named Kasigua Male (KM) who is at least 40 years. He was followed by one-tusked Maktau Female (MKF). Then we collared Jipe Male (JM), between 35 to 40 years old and he had at least six inches missing from the tip of his trunk  – most likely as a result of being caught in a wire snare that cut through it.

Njukini Female (NJF) was the last of the day. We found this 20 to 25 year-old individual in a group of 80 others outside the western end of Tsavo West National Park near neighboring Tanzania.

The biologists aboard the helicopter, IFAW’s Steve Njumbi and David Kimutai of KWS noted the different body and tusk sizes of this herd – smaller relative to the other Tsavo elephants, with shorter, thinner and straighter tusks and backbones prominently exposed. These observations were confirmed on the ground during collar deployment of NJF. We theorized that this is part of a remnant forest population that moves between Tsavo West and Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. This particular collar will enable us to confirm this hypothesis.

The last collar was fitted on to a “youngish,” healthy 20 to 25 year-old dubbed Kamboyo Male. We ensured adequate collar space around his neck in recognition that he still has some growing to do.

Welfare of the animals

The first four elephants of Day 1 were darted and collared in an average time of 13 minutes per elephant.Reducing stress to the darted animals is paramount in operations like this. We deploy collars as quickly as possible so the darted elephant can be revived in the shortest time possible. The first four elephants of Day 1 were darted and collared in an average time of 13 minutes per elephant. Deployment refers to the action of measuring the elephant’s neck circumference, cutting the length of the collar to that size, then placing it around the neck using a hooked wire to pull it underneath the massive and weighty neck of the sleeping elephant. 

On the second day, we reduced average collar deployment time to 10 minutes per animals. And the last individual on Day 3 was deployed in nine minutes despite her falling into a sitting position after being darted – a dangerous posture for an elephant because it can crush its lungs – but she was pushed onto her side in 30 seconds by two seasoned KWS capture officers, Capture Warden Patrick Mulandi and Capture Sergeant Lelimo.

In the end there were no injuries or deaths to elephants or personnel involved in this inherently dangerous exercise. This remarkable efficiency is testimony to the thorough preparations of the last six months and the experience of the technical and support teams involved in the operation..

IFAW and KWS fitted these elephants with satellite collars to give us current information on elephant movements and their usage of the Tsavo ecosystem.

Human population has significantly increased in the area since the 1971 tracking project and with the increase has come encroachment into former elephant rangelands through agriculture and other human infrastructure changes. These encroachments have led to more cases of human-elephant conflict (HEC).

In December 2011, a local resident was killed by an elephant in the Voi area of Tsavo East. But, unlike past incidents when the community would demand the killing of the ‘rogue’ elephant, this time they demanded the life of a KWS staffer.

Poaching in Kenya has reached alarming levels in the last two years. KWS reports at least 278 elephants killed for their ivory last year compared to 47 in 2007. Tsavo is no exception. In fact, two Tsavo rangers were tragically killed by poachers two weeks prior to this collaring operation.

Our strategy and purpose in collaring the elephants is to gather information to inform management decisions regarding human-elephant conflict resolution, anti-poaching efforts, and the most critical corridors and dispersal areas outside the protected areas.

Information collected from the elephants we collared last year already point to two interesting insights:

  1. That the elephants are “area specific,” meaning they have preferred areas in the ecosystem that they stick to a majority of the time. We can infer that this behavior is due to resource partitioning of the ecosystem by the elephants. For management this is good and bad news. Good because managers can better predict where the elephants are and concentrate security and HEC effort in those areas. Bad because poachers can also predict where to find elephants.
  2. One female elephant has spent the majority of her time outside the protected area in a community ranch south of Tsavo East. In terms of ecology and management, this “proves” there is a corridor and dispersal area important to elephants outside the park boundaries that needs to be secured. But it is bad news because security is not as tight outside the park.

Information is power. No doubt the information generated from the twelve satellite collared elephants will give us the power to triumph over challenges and better protect the elephants and the habitats they depend on in the Tsavo Conservation Area.

--Steve Njumbi

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