Recollaring Mountain Bull
09 August, 2010
by David Daballen,
STE Field Leader
Mountain Bull, Mt.Kenya’s best known elephant, is recollared by the STE team
Mountain Bull in Imenti forest, walking past cattle
On August 5th members of the STE field team joined Ian Craig and his team to re-collar Mountain Bull, one of Kenya’s most elusive and well know elephants. Mountain Bull featured in the recent documentary series “The Secret Life of Elephants”, screened on the BBC (UK) and Animal Planet (USA). The operation was highly complex and took six months of planning, finally to take place successfully in Lewa Downs.
The four new collars deployed will provide essential movement data between Mt. Kenya and Lewa, across farming community areas. The farms and settlements have severed traditional elephant corridors, bringing elephants into conflict with people.
Mt. Kenya Trust has developed a corridor intended to reroute elephants along a safer route, away from farms and human habitation. We hope to use the date from the four new collars to monitor elephant usage of the newly devised corridor.
Upon arrival at Lewa we assembled all the equipment needed including communication tools (radios, phones etc), ropes and four radio tracking collars. Once we were satisfied with the equipment, my team and I went to the Marania end of the corridor to join the Lewa Scouts, at about four o’clock. The scouts had been camping out there for a week or more monitoring the movement pattern of the elephants.
We tracked Mountain Bull by navigating to his most recent coordinates. After picking up his signal, we tracked him on foot since most of this forest is inaccessible by car. The signal became stronger and stronger and we tried to get as close as possible to determine how many elephants there were in the vicinity.
Tracking Mountain bull on foot
Although it was only six o’clock it was already getting dark in the forest so we had to go back and find the car in order to head back to Lewa.
The following morning left early to find Mountain Bull. We went to his previous location and picked a weak signal in the same area, but he seemed to have moved deeper into the forest.
It appeared that the bulls were coming down at night to raid crops, before returning deep into the forest very early in the morning. It was almost as if they knew they had done something wrong the previous night.
We were led on a long chase of weak and strong signals until we found Mountain Bull. Once located, we sat in the one spot until we saw him physically.
In the section of the forest where Mountain Bull seemed to be spending a lot of time, there are a few tracks which act as fire-breaks and can be driven on carefully. Human activities such as cattle grazing and firewood collection are common in this zone and therefore elephants seem to tolerate people.
At three o’clock Ian Craig arrived at the position I sent to him and we immediately got started with the operation. The chopper went up, found the target and the dart went in. Since visibility was very poor, we were entirely dependent on the chopper to update us on what was happening. At one point we were warned to be careful as he was coming towards us. He came out into a little clearing where we saw him for just a minute before he disappeared. We picked up what was necessary from the car and started running after him through the forest.
Luckily I had a receiver which made things much easier by giving us the direction of the bull. I gathered the few people that I was with. The instructions were that there was to be no separating and that we had to stick together and therefore everyone followed me since I had the receiver. It is very easy for one to get lost in the forest.
The chopper was still over-head trying to find the bull that was just about to go down under the impact of the dart. The main problem was that none of us had a visual of the animal. Luckily, I received a very strong signal indicating that he was close by. Finally we found him down, but on his chest. I informed Ian who immediately looked for a place to land the chopper.
We tried to push him over onto his side, but we were so few and so we had to get a car for help. While waiting for the car we attempted to attach the collar. Unfortunately, his neck was just too big for the collar. The car arrived and we were able to push him to the side and finally fit him with his new collar.
The following day, we left at four in the morning from Lewa to get to Marania by six. We were going to locate elephants that had been seen crop raiding every other day in the area, and there were reports of elephants seen going back into the forest very early that same morning.
Our target was at least one cow, but unfortunately we didn’t find the females that morning. Luckily, two middle age males were found to the west of Marania. Once Ian landed, we discussed the plan to collar one of the males before the chopper was launched.
A few minutes later the animal was darted and everyone was on alert. The chopper was doing very tight circles to ensure that we did not lose the animal. We were guided by Richard Moller who was flying the fix-wing plane overhead.
By time we got in the elephant was already down and in the worst possible position; his head was facing down words on very steep ground. We quickly jumped out and used the minimal time possible to attach the collar.
The revival drug was administered and we all ran back to the cars. We were so lucky he didn’t have any difficulties in waking up given position he was in.
The whole team re-groups to make new plans
Immediately, we re-grouped and went for the second bull who was not too far from the first one. A few minutes later Ian confirmed that the dart was in. Richard again was so helpful and guided us to where the bull had been darted. As usual the chopper was hovering over-head like a hunting eagle attempting to keep sight of the target.
The bull went down shortly after and fortunately we were already halfway to where the animal fell. We quickly attached the collar and revived the elephant.
After the second darting, we regrouped for a final time feeling more relaxed and hoped for one more group of elephants, preferably all females. However our search revealed one bull in Kisima farm, headed up to Marania. We rushed to join the air crew since we were quiet far from the area.
We arrived, quickly made plans and the chopper took off. After the animal was darted we slowly moved towards where the chopper was hovering and we heard Ian calling to say that the elephant was down. Charlie Dyer, who owns Kisima farm, was also with us on this operation. We quickly tagged the animal and then revived him.
In the end we all felt like winners and thanked each other. Four collars in Mt Kenya will undoubtedly give more important information on this significant elephant population, and allow us to see which other elephants use the corridor alongside Mountain Bull.