By Gilbert Koech, The Star
Tracking elephants’ movement is crucial as data generated will help conservationists better understand their movements and protect their connectivity.
This is in the face of future infrastructure development and landscape change.
Save the Elephants, a local NGO, the Kenya Wildlife Service and other conservation organisations can now track several Jumbos in a bid to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
With its partners, Save the Elephants is tracking 400 elephants across Africa, providing the world with an intimate glimpse into the lives of these gentle giants while helping secure them a future.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants says the journeys made by elephants open a window into their minds. “They’re also a demonstration that elephants remember their routes. Whether it’s on a quest for food and water, to socialise with other elephants or to look for mates, elephants make treks through deserts, forests, bushes and savannah,” he said.
He said elephants have climbed mountains, crossed deserts without water, and trekked for miles over the open and dangerous landscape, following the paths of their ancestors or even forging new routes.
In 2016, an elephant named Morgan left the Tana River close to Kenya’s coast and marched into Somalia on a heroic journey that made global news. He was the first elephant known to have visited Somalia in just over 20 years.
The jumbo stalked through dangerous terrain infested with al Shaabab militants moving only during the night and hiding during the day in thick bush.
Douglas-Hamilton said Morgan spent only 24 hours in Somalia before returning to Kenya. His entire journey lasted 18 days, taking him a total of 137 miles. According to Save the Elephants, Morgan, the elephant may have been following old migration routes he learned in his youth that was interrupted by decades of war.
“He obviously had something in his mind about where he was going,” Hamilton said. “Out of all the tracking we’ve done in Africa, these movements show an exceptional adaptation moving by night to avoid danger. The wandering of this one bull across the entire expanse of Lamu district, from the Tana River to the Somali border has not been recorded before.”
Another tracked elephant to make extraordinary journeys was one of Kenya’s well-known elephant elders, Matt, who died of natural causes last year.
During his lifetime he roamed further than any other Kenya elephant tracked by Save the Elephants going from the Tana River, round Mount Kenya, through Samburu all the way to Laikipia. His travels also took him northward across Samburu for a stretch of 220 km.
Matt’s range turned out to span all the way from Meru National Park on the Tana River, through three national reserves, and half a dozen community conservancies to the west of the elephants’ range.
He was large with spectacular tusks and he thrived and lived through during the high-risk poaching epidemic a decade ago – a testament to his adaptation and local knowledge. Douglas-Hamilton said Matt as a dominant bull elephant made yearly journeys from his resting area east of the Matthew’s Range to the Samburu National Reserve where he could find females in oestrus.
He warns that many epic elephant journeys, however, could soon become a thing of the past. “The elephants’ rangeland is contracting and fragmenting as Kenya becomes more populated and developed. Elephant paths are becoming blocked by roads, railways, new towns, villages and fences. Confusion – and conflict – can result as elephants find themselves lost in unfamiliar territory,” he said.
Douglas-Hamilton said fences were coming up at rates not witnessed before.
He cites a fence at the northern edge of Meru National Park that protects farmers from elephants within the park as an example saying it causes problems for elephants when elephants they arrive from elsewhere.
A tracked female called Magado is an example. She and her family made repeated attempts to reach Meru from Shaba, some 70 miles to the northwest, across an open and dangerous landscape.
Each time they neared the park; they would hit the fence and spend panicked days in the farmlands, searching for an opening.
Magado had lost her mother and elder females from her family during the poaching years and didn’t have the valuable data or knowledge as other experienced matriarchs.
Finally, in March last year, two years after her first recorded attempt, Magado and the herd, at last, found their way into the park. Since then, she and her family have continued their long treks from Shaba and thanks to Magado’s memory for the routes she’s travelled she’s been able to find the pathway every time.
Experts believe that appreciating why elephants like Morgan, Matt and Magado make such journeys will help people plan to give them free passage, helping both humans and elephants to live in harmony together.