A passion for leading jumbos away from conflict


By Immaculate Karambu, Business Daily

Date Published

While many would call monitoring wild animals a ‘strange career’ of sorts, to Susie Weeks and Festus Ihwagi, it is a passion, an inspiration.

Last weekend, the final touches to the new face of conservation: a migration corridor courtesy of Mt. Kenya Trust was in progress. The 28-kilometre elephant corridor has an electrified game-proof fence that aims at providing a safe passageway for elephants in the northern part of Imenti Forest and Mount Kenya National Reserve. The initiative seeks to re-direct elephants to an underground route to reduce cases of crop and property damage by the animals, which are known to persistently follow traditional migratory routes.

“The new elephant corridor will re-link Mount Kenya to wildlife areas from the Ngare Ndare forest to the North and North West of the mountain” said Ms Weeks, the executive director of Mount Kenya Trust. For the Sh80 million corridor, the tack is changing. It will be an electric fence with an underpass. Virgin Atlantic airlines has donated Sh20 million for the cause.

While the Mount Kenya Trust is erecting a fence and building an underpass, another group — Save the Elephants — is keen on tracking them using satellite and GSM systems. Their protagonist christened Mt. Bull has been tracked since 2006, long before the onset of the corridor project and shall continue being monitored as a good case study of an elephant’s response to the corridor. In 2010, four more bulls were collared in the vicinity of the corridor to increase the sample size.

“Our mission is to study and know how elephants perceive the ecosystem and how they make decisions within the ecosystem.

Through geo-fencing technique, messages can be sent to researchers and managers when elephants cross predefined virtual fences,” said Mr Ihwagi, a geographical information systems analyst at Save the Elephants (STE). “Working closely with Kenya Wildlife Service, the STE team has developed a mobile technology-based means of mitigating human elephant conflicts — geo-fencing. Elephants send text messages to selected mobile phone numbers,” he says.

Animals are fitted with collars linked to servers under the satellite and GSM tracking system. Their movement is monitored through the network to establish where an elephant is. An interference with the collar will send the signal that the animal is in danger, perhaps poachers have struck. However, pricing and maintenance of the devices are almost prohibitive. A collar costs between $4,000 and $5,000 while maintaining the device in a year, which include aerial monitoring elephants, data server administration, satellite data operations, downloading and data analysis shoots the budget to $10,000 (Sh800,000).

The first batch of radio collars were deployed in Samburu in 1998. Since then, over 90 elephants have been collar-tracked in northern Kenya. The ecosystem hosts 7,500 elephants according to the elephant census in 2008; up from 5,400 elephants in 2002. The population is thus building up at an annual rate of 3.5%. This is Kenya’s second largest elephant population outside protected area. The largest population is the Tsavo-Mkomazi estimated at 12000 jumbos as of 2008.

A completed underpass beneath the Nanyuki-Meru highway is a major part of the corridor and will allow elephants to walk through rather than cross the busy highway. Managers of the corridor project are betting on animals getting used to the new migration route for a successful venture, which is propped by well-wishers who value wildlife conservation. As Mt Kenya Trust seeks to divert elephants from their historical route presently under human occupation, Save the Elephants has offered to share information on the movement of tracked elephants in the vicinity of the corridor. So far, the longest tracked Bull, Mt. Bull is yet to adopt the new route. Drawing from years of behavioral and movement studies, STE research team has shared knowledge on how best to possibly encourage elephants on the corridor.

Virgin Atlantic general manager Jonathan Harding said wildlife conservation should be enhanced in Kenya to promote tourism. “More people coming to Kenya are particularly interested in seeing conservation taking place,” he said.

The Mount Kenya Trust is named after conservationist Bill Woodley who, it is said, dedicated half of his life to work in national parks to protect the mountain and the surrounding environment.

Renowned elephant specialist Iain Douglas-Hamilton founded Save the Elephants as a charity with sights on securing a future for the jumbos and sustains the beauty of where the animals live.

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