Collaring a Legend


Rebecca Sargent, International Intern

Date Published

It was just a regular evening at STE research camp. We were sitting around the dinner table chatting and keeping an eye out for our genet friend, when David casually dropped into the conversation “So tomorrow there might be an attempt to re-collar Mountain Bull” .I held my breath “You should be able to go along”. I could hardly believe my ears! Not only would this be my first experience of a collaring operation and the chance to see one of the few large and impressive bulls left, but this was Mountain Bull, one of STE’s most famous elephants!

For any of you who have seen The Secret Life of Elephants, you will already know who I’m talking about. Mountain Bull is a 45 year old elephant who lives in the Mount Kenya area. He was first collared in 2006 as a means of investigating the routes elephants use to move between Mount Kenya and the savannahs of Lewa, Borana and the north. Mountain Bull is particularly notorious as his regular route means he crosses highways, tramples through fields and breaks fences, all the while making tasty snacks of the farmers crops.

Elephant Corridors

In 2010 an elephant underpass and fenced corridor were constructed in order to allow the elephants to continue their migration while avoiding the local communities. However, Mountain Bull’s continued dedication to his traditional migration routes have meant he has continued to be a problem to farmers and villagers in the area, habitually breaking fences and exacerbating the human-wildlife conflict in the area. However, in January this year there was much excitement as he broke the habits of a lifetime and used the underpass for the very first time.

The following morning, full of anticipation, I joined Gilbert and Daud as they headed to Lewa to meet the vet. We spent some time at the workshop there ensuring that the collar was ready to be deployed. Then, with my excitement slowly building, we drove away to where the scouts had last seen Mountain Bull. As we drove through the beautiful rolling landscape of Borana I scanned the horizons eagerly for my first glimpse of the giant. Although the hills meant for impressive views and the ability to see far into the distance it was difficult terrain for a darting, full of hidden holes and steep inclines.

Eventually we pulled up behind the vet who was pointing away to a distant hillside. And there he was, just a large grey back visible above the tree line. As he was some distance from the road it was decided that a helicopter would be the best way to dart him. The vet jumped aboard and we watched from the car as the helicopter swooped its way towards him like a giant buzzing insect. He fled at the sight and noise of the chopper, but not before the dart was successfully deployed. My heart was in my mouth as this colossus thundered towards us, however while he was still some distance away he turned and raced out of sight over a dip. Unfortunately he was heading towards a river so the helicopter picked up the pace and zoomed across in front of him to chase him back.

Finally, around 15 minutes after the dart hit, we got the radio call telling us he was down. The cars raced to the spot where the helicopter was hovering and found this huge mountain of an elephant breathing deeply on the ground. While I stood in awe at being so close to such a large animal the team leapt into action. While Gilbert and the vets looped the collar around his neck, Daud began to take measurements of his tusks, feet and shoulder height. My job was to be camerawoman so I began snapping away happily while the buzz of activity continued around the immobilised elephant.

Collaring an elephant

The collar was fastened at a length of 320cm around his massive neck and gingerly I reached out to touch his impressive tusks. Although they had been sawn short at the end of last year, as a method of preventing him from breaking fences, the diameter of them was still something to marvel at. I can imagine how beautiful they must’ve been at full length. Although it seems sad that his tusks have had to be trimmed it has probably saved his life as the farmers were losing patience with his raiding. The operation appears to have been a great success as there has been only one recorded incident of him breaking into a farm since he lost the ability to break through wires with his long tusks.

It was all over so quickly. The team have become so incredibly proficient at this. After less than half an hour and one final pat of his tree trunk-like leg we scattered back to the cars before the antidote was injected. He was on his feet in a couple of minutes more, and frustratingly he headed off in the opposite direction behind some trees. I caught one final glimpse of him in the distance as he moved off towards the faraway hills.

So it had been short but sweet. I had had my time with the infamous Mountain Bull and I will not forget it. Finally my first collaring after being with STE for four months and what a guy to collar! I have every hope that he will begin to use the elephant corridor more frequently and that this legendary elephant can live a long and happy life.