Collaring elephants in Mt. Kenya


by Jake Wall

Date Published

Save the Elephants started off the year with an ambitious collaring operation on Mt.Kenya. Kindly supported by the Fehsenfeld family, the Save the Elephants team consisting of David Daballen, Jake Wall and Jerenimo Lepirei worked closely with Ian Craig of NRT, the Kenya Wildlife Service, Lewa Conservancy, The Mount Kenya Trust, and Kisima & Marania farms to deploy a further 4 collars onto elephants on Mount Kenya.

A central motivation of collaring elephants in the Mount Kenya area is to see how elephants will respond to the opening of a newly fenced corridor that is designed to provide safe passage to elephants who wish to move between the lush forests of Mount Kenya and the savannah of Lewa, Borana and the north. One bull named Mountain Bull, has moved between the two areas as many as 30 times in the past 5 years but has had to do so by crossing highways, fields and by breaking fences. Although Mountain Bull is not the only bull to make the trek, he is the only one that has been recorded using GPS tracking technology in which Save the Elephants is a leading authority.

The recent operation took place on January 2nd and the team had use of at least two helicopters at any given time for each of the four immobilisations. The first elephant selected for collaring was named ‘Soboiga’ – a bull in his early thirties – who was located in the northern corridor area, below the A1 highway. He was with 5 other bulls but, using the helicopters, the team was able to separate the bull from the others and Ian Craig expertly placed the dart. The operation went very smoothly and the bull is now fitted with an African Wildlife Tracking collar which we expect to give us up to 5 year’s worth of hourly GPS data.

The second animal collared was a huge bull called ‘Kasite’ with tusks weighing at least 70 lbs. a side. Kasite was in a difficult area up in the Mount Kenya forest. Mike Watson and Jamie Roberts, both helicopter pilots, had to land in a very difficult area with the front rotor of the helicopter mere feet from trees. Alan Root also joined with a third helicopter and was able to provide a lookout for other elephants in the area. Kasite was collared without hitch and his collar will now reveal movements never previously imagined. Kasite will also act as a test for a new STE poaching monitoring system that continuously monitors the movements of elephants. In the unfortunate event Kasite is poached for his tusks, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Save the Elephants will be alerted within 24 hours and can mount a response.

After Kasite, the team reconvened at the Marania airstrip and decided to try for a female elephant found in a group of ~ 45 females located near Sacred Lake in the Mount Kenya forest. The female, aged 15-20 years and named ‘Prunella’, is the first female to be found in the vicinity of the corridor and it is hoped that her new collar will reveal whether female elephants also move between Mount Kenya and the region to the north.

The fourth and final operation targeted a young bull, aged 15-20 years, who, as luck would have it, was located within the corridor and was the first elephant to use the high-way underpass. Nicknamed ‘Tony’, we discovered, after he had been immobilised, that he had a bullet wound in his front left leg and was limping. The vet, Dr. Ephantus Ndabiri, treated the wound but it’s a stark reminder of the trials elephants in Kenya face on a daily basis. GPS data from Tony’s new collar showed that he went back through the high-way underpass and is now in Lewa Downs.

Several days after our hugely successful collaring operation, we witnessed an incredible movement whereby Mountain Bull, joined up with the newly collared Soboiga and another collared bull named Flynn, and together, the three of them traveled up Mountain Bull’s regular route back to the Mount Kenya forest. This became the first time we have recorded other elephants other than Mountain Bull travel between Ngare Ndare and Mount Kenya. Reports from Ian Craig confirm that there were at least 4 other elephants in the group and additionally, a group of 8 bulls moved independently up the corridor and into the forest. The sudden rush back to Mount Kenya by these bull groups poses some wonderful new research questions as to why the elephants are compelled to move to Mount Kenya. Northern Kenya is currently very hot and getting drier by the day with a prediction of another drought year. The lure of the lush green forests of Mount Kenya may see many other animals using the new corridor in search of water and vegetation.