As the African landscape changes, the need to discover where elephants travel and how the expansion of new infrastructure could impact their movement and their lives is more urgent than ever. Understanding elephants as individuals, mapping their movements and studying their family history not only provides us with valuable insight into their behavior, but is crucial to their survival.
One such individual, an adventurous thirteen year old elephant we are tracking named Orchid from the Flowers family, recently showed us how infrastructure can impede an elephant’s movements. In July 2017, she streaked with her family in tow from the safety of Samburu National Reserve, looped around farmland and covered about 70 miles in one week. Her fast pace was suddenly slowed when she hit an enormous fence separating small scale farmers from elephants that live within Meru National Park, the safe haven she was heading towards.
On our tracking systems we could see Orchid struggle as she raced up and down the fence line trying to find a way in before she eventually broke through and headed straight to the river in the heart of Meru National Park. What had pulled her so urgently to Meru, through this zone of potential danger, in the first place? Was Orchid following a map in her head? Was she following a path that her mother, or even her more distant ancestors, had travelled?
This wasn’t the first time Orchid had run into trouble. Orchid’s own mother, the matriarch named Maua, meaning flower in Kiswahili, lived conservatively, according to several years of data collected between 2003 and 2013. She lived mostly in Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, but tragically lost her life to poachers in 2014 when she came too close to the town of Isiolo, a busy trading town that sits on the main road to Ethiopia . Maua’s eldest daughter, Desert Rose, whose family Orchid has now joined, has taken a different tactic. She has taken the family far to the east, exploring complex terrain including some of the region’s poaching hotspots on the way to Meru National Park.
Mapping the tracks of elephants like Orchid through the use of satellite and GSM collars helps to protect them when they move into danger zones. Once we know where the elephants are, we can work with partners to protect them. We share this data with the Northern Rangelands Trust, who run an effective network of rangers who can respond preemptively when elephants move into danger areas. And while not all elephants in the north are collared, those that we do track help improve the fortunes of other herds. It’s early days but we have high hopes that as part of a suite of solutions that will improve the fate of elephants across Africa.
Orchid hitting a barrier tells a wider story about the changing landscape elephants are learning to navigate. By analyzing her movements and those of other elephants that have made similar journeys, we can identify important elephant habitats and the corridors that connect them. We use this information to help the government with planning of infrastructure, to allow elephants to continue their movements unimpeded. By protecting elephant pathways, we can join up the landscape and have an Africa that is not only developed but also has its ecosystem intact. Proper planning can also help elephants like Orchid and the Flowers co-exist peacefully alongside Humans.
Our work is only possible thanks to the support of private individuals. Please give generously, and help us protect elephants like Orchid, Desert Rose and the Flowers and provide enough space for elephants to roam far and wide into the future.
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