Among the Elephants Blog

Marsabit Report
April 30, 2003
Save the Elephants

It is an oasis in the middle of a desert and is surrounded by the great northern deserts of Kenya, causing it to be isolated from other elephant habitats. For this reason, the genetics of this isolated population should prove to be very interesting. David Daballen, Henrik Rasmussen, and George Wittemyer, experienced researchers working in Samburu National Reserve, were required to collect DNA from at least 30 elephants from the relatively isolated Marsabit volcano.

Our first day took us to Hula Hula, a small village high up on the mountain where David Daballen is from. As we drove into Hula Hula, David's family and friends gave the researchers a huge Rendille welcome. The Rendille are an endangered people who are nomadic camel herders. Culturally they are similar to the Samburu though they are of Cushitic descent. Henrik and George put their tents up outside David's house. After dinner, we heard elephants rumbling nearby and the researchers had a feeling that the next day would be a successful one.

After breakfast the next morning, David's brother and another warrior escorted the three researchers from Hula Hula to the area where the elephants had been heard. After a short walk, they were able to collect 6 samples from the Hula Hula elephants. Henrik collecting samples After their success, the researchers set out to meet the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Warden of Marsabit National Park. After introductions and an exchange of pleasantries, they set out into the park to find more samples. They entered the lush tropical forest that sits on the very top of Mt. Marsabit and were immediately struck by the cool, green beauty of these forests. After a short drive, the researchers arrived in one of the many crater lakes on the mountain.

The lake provides a permanent water source for many of the animals in the area. Unfortunately, the rains began the day the researchers arrived in Marsabit so most of the animals had left the forest and were heading down to the desert low lands, since water was no longer limited. David on the shores of one of the crater lakes Although the researchers were unable to collect any samples from the lake area, they were able to find some samples on elephant trails in the forest. From Lake Paradise, one of the most beautiful places on Marsabit, they found the old carcass of a poached female. From this they scraped off a small piece of meat that can be used for genetic analysis. The second day started out very wet as it had been raining all night.

Unfortunately George's tent was not very water-proof and he experienced a very wet night! With the heavy rains, the STE team were doubtful as to whether they would find any elephants. They decided to start the day by helping the village collect water. As they drove up to the Hula Hula well, they were incredibly happy to find fresh elephant dung. Around the wells, the team were able to collect 13 samples in a place they did not expect to find any elephants. After collecting water they drove around to the southern side of the mountain, to a place called Parkishun. The researchers stumbled upon foot prints and began to follow the elephant trail. A large number of samples were found, however most were already invaded by dung beetles. It seemed that the researchers were in direct competition with the dung beetles and they had gotten up before them.

The week flew by and the last day started out wet again as it rained continuously during the night. The team drove over to Karare on the south side of the mountain in search of elephants, but failed to find any sign of elephants. They returned to KWS to see if they could help with some samples from carcasses. They were very helpful and provided 6 skin samples. David's brother with one of the Daballen desert goats The researchers returned to Hula Hula to feast on one of the Daballen desert goats. After feasting, they climbed a nearby hill and spotted a group of elephants. These were the first elephants which had seen during the whole trip and they were incrdibly excited. They ran over to the group and found one big bull and three youngsters.

The big bull was very defensive, noticing the researchers immediately as they approached. Luckily, they were able to collect samples from them just as night fell. Again, heavy rains were experienced on their last night. Henrik and George were lucky not to be washed down the mountain. After drying slightly, the team climbed into the car and headed back to Samburu. George and Henrik in the forest At the end of the 1 week visit in and around the Marsabit forest, the researchers estimated the Marsabit elephant population to be between 100-300 individuals. They were not able to visit the East side of the mountain as the roads were in poor condition and the rains made them impassable.

However, it was clear that elephants were moving from the forest down to the lowland on the south side of the mountain. Reports from the Rendille community living on the western side of the mountain, state that they are experiencing large number of elephant herds coming to the area. They feel that the elephants are spending longer periods of time and the Rendille people strongly believe that this is caused by heavy poaching which is occurring on the eastern side of the mountain. It appears to be a potentially interesting population genetically because of its isolation from any other elephant populations. Save the Elephants strongly recommends taking future action to help conserve this unique elephant population and its ecosystem.