UPDATED - VIDEO: Trumpet and Be Counted - Aerial Census of Elephants in Tsavo-Mkomazi Ecosystem

UPDATED VIDEO: 7.21.11 - In this overview video, produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, several members of the Tsavo Elephant Census team and greater African conservation community talk about the process and needs for protecting and expanding protection for the elephant populations in their respective areas. - ED


It’s a day to the elephant census in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem, and I am still reeling from all the preps that go into such an exercise. If we include proposal writing, fundraising, project planning, identification of materials, equipment and personnel needed to the mobilisation of the participants and a detailed briefing on the eve of the count, then it span over five months.

This helps in accountability and peer review by other Front Seat Observers (FSO) surveying the area. Survey blocks have to be covered systematically from bottom to top as elephants move great distances. This also helps increase data reliability as experienced observers and GIS personnel ensure that their data analysis is conducted scientifically," says Steve.

As an FSO in this count, Steve, like others, will work with a small team every day. As the title indicates, and if he will be flying in a four-seater aircraft, he will seat at the front with the pilot while two Rear Seat Observers (RSO) will take their positions as per their title. The RSOs role is to spot, count and call out the species and numbers on his or her side for the FSO to note down.

The FSO also coordinates with the pilot flying over the transects for systematic coverage, and if need be, circling over an area again for accuracy. After covering individual blocks, the small team lands and the FSOs review their datasheets to ensure they have captured correct data as well as exchange notes with others so as not to duplicate data.

They then hand the datasheets and GPSs to the GIS personnel for downloading while they get some rest – every evening has a briefing where results of the day have to be analysed and computed before the whole team is allowed to break until the following morning. But not for the security team of rangers who ensure that the aircrafts at the airstrip are safe - from humans but particularly from hyenas which can make a hearty meal from tyres and brake pipes.

Mkomazi, located in Tanzania, and which abuts Tsavo on the northeast will also be covered. Representatives from Tanzania research institute and parks are raring to go, having participated in the last census in 2008 which netted 11,696 elephants. For capacity building purposes as well sharing experiences and information, government representatives of Uganda and Southern Sudan are here courtesy of KWS and IFAW. Wildlife authorities in sub-Saharan Africa share similar challenges on elephant conservation and management and given that elephants move across borders, regional cooperation is the way to go.

Other participants are a logistical support team ranging from aircraft engineers and attendants, ground transport team, security, first aiders, finance and procurement and accommodation and meals facilitation. If a block is large or too far from the operation base or too bushy making it difficult to easily spot wildlife as opposed to open savannah, and returning to the operation base for a lunch break is out of question, then arrangements are made for the observers and pilot to carry lunchboxes which they can take as the aircraft is refuelled.

Four refueling stations within Tsavo Parks have been supplied with Avgas provided by IFAW. Counting in one block can take 5 hours to 8 hours – block teams rouse up at dawn and return in early afternoon. Rehydrating is essential in the burning heat – and mouthfuls of glucose or fruit juice keeps the participants balanced and helps in endurance. Despite my initial anxiety, it’s good to be back to the red elephants and stunning sunsets of Tsavo. Let’s trumpet for elephants. --EW

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