Of lawmakers, drones and elephants


Nina Schoonman, International Intern

Date Published

So, to the next update from the depths of elephant country.

We’ve certainly had some excitement here over the past days. The camp has been honoured by a visit from lawmaker Dr. Elizabeth Quat from Hong Kong, seen an influx from the team in Nai’ (short for Nairobi) and finally, survived the inventive-and very fun-public speaking workshop given by an American wildlife photographer, Steve Mandel. It’s been a trip. And this is only the human wildlife passing through camp, for our local bull Sarara and cronies have also been back to wreak havoc on the young acacia trees planted around camp and made for nerve-racking moments as they chose to cross the swollen river. Luckily, they all made it, though it was a close call for the youngest bull with the broken tusks, whose hesitance meant he couldn’t shelter behind Sarara as they crossed.

Crossing the river

Sarara and pals crossing the river

Unfortunately, our ever-present, super-reliable, highly-trained elephants chose Dr. Quat’s visit to follow the rains (which fell everywhere but the park) and disappear. The team found themselves driving the width and breadth of the park to find… nothing. Niente. The elephants seemed to have disappeared off the dusty face of the Samburu plains. Google Earth-our usual fall-back when looking for elephants-only proved what we already knew. The elephants were in Kalama, up north, or in Westgate, to the west; anywhere but the park. It was a bit disappointing but at least good ol’ Sarara was around to show his face and the guests could be taken straight to the elephants camped just outside Westgate. It was incredible to meet Dr. Quat, who is a remarkable person and whose determination to pass legislation forcing Hong Kong to give up the ivory market is not only exceptionally honourable, but a vital step in elephant preservation.

On the last night of before the staff from Nairobi were to make their journeys home, by ground or by air, everyone was invited up to Sunset Hill to witness the sunset, the moonrise and some extraordinary flying of a home-made drone engineered by Steve Mandel. It was a beautiful night filled with dancing and fire-charred mbuzi, or goat. The night ended long after the moon had risen with much laughter and, for me, at least, the certainty that I was really proud to be a part of this extraordinary group of people, even if only for a few weeks.

The Samburu dancers

The Samburu dancers


Dancing into the night

Dancing into the night


Samburu seemed very empty without elephants, so I was ecstatic when we came across a big group of the Royals yesterday; our most iconic family. I was especially excited because I’ve been tracking the Royals’ movements through time since they were first collared in 2001. The family seem to have changed their range from west to east, into the reserves and conservancies beyond, presumably pushed out by the increased intensity of life-stock conflict and drawn in by the promise of safety. The group boasts a number of large, dominant females, explaining their success in moving into the park, and they have largely escaped the poaching that has decimated many other families. These matriarchs have led the family-through wisdom or by luck-into its current range. I’ve been investigating the triggers for their movements, looking at the three things that generally dictate elephants’ movements: safety, sustenance and sex (the latter taken to include all social interaction). This being the case, I have grown very familiar with the collared females: Anastasia, Annabelle and Cleopatra and it was fab to see them out on the plains as opposed to tracing their little yellow elephant image moving across a satellite image.

Trunks up...

Trunks up…

Having been reunited with the local royalty, I should probably have knuckled down to some more satellite imagery, but couldn’t resist Jerenimo’s offer this morning of a long game drive that covered both sides of the Uaso, Samburu-side and then across the river in Buffalo Springs. Best decision ever. We discovered that whilst Samburu was almost completely bare of elephants, Buffalo side was filled with them. Elephants were everywhere. My initial attempts at identification, or at least counting them, very soon fell by the wayside and I just sat and watched, mesmerised, whilst Jerenimo drove around and id’d. Even he had to admit that it was impossible to get a completely accurate count and identification as he usually did. With all the off-roading we were doing through the shrub I was not surprised when, at about 3 in the afternoon, with the sun beating down and surrounded by elephants, Jerenimo sighed: we had a flat. In fact, it was pretty surprising we’d lasted so long in the first place. But a little thing like a pancake-flat tire in the middle of the bush, amidst a herd of rumbling elephants puts no one here off, and Jere’ had it fixed in no time. The only downside: we had no second spare and couldn’t risk another puncture so we had to head back to camp. Alors, another day well spent.

...who goes there?

…who goes there?


...sharing some love

…showing some love