Satellite tracking technology helps keep elephants safe

Got up and tried to shake the collar off.
Got up and tried to shake the collar off.

On September 10, on a beautiful sunny day in Amboseli National Park, I was present when KWS vets successfully attached a tracking collar to Tim, one of Kenya’s last remaining big tuskers.

Following the meticulously planned operation, KWS director general Kitili Mbathi thanked veterinary staff and KWS rangers for their professionalism. He also thanked the NGOs present for their support, including WildlifeDirect for initiating the plan and providing the finance, Save The Elephants (STE) for donating the collar, and Big Life Foundation and the Amboseli Trust for Elephants for their logistic and scientific back-up.

Addressing members of local Maasai communities present, Mbathi said, “We are committed to exploring effective methods to keep our communities safe while securing all of our elephants, especially valuable individuals like Tim.”

KWS director general Kitili Mbathi with the author during the collaring process Photo/Wildlife Direct.

Great tuskers under threat

Great tuskers like Tim are a symbol of our continent’s unique natural heritage. But their magnificent tusks act like a magnet for poachers and place these elephants constantly at risk. 2014 was a black year, when two of Kenya’s most iconic great tuskers, Satao and Mountain Bull, were killed by poachers. Thankfully, Tim is still alive.

Now 47 years old, Tim is friendly, smart and charismatic, popular among tourists and looked up to by younger bull elephants. He is also much sought after by females in oestrus and has spent his adult life passing on his genes to elephant population in Amboseli. Unfortunately, he is also a crop raider. As he enters late middle age, he seems to be getting more brazen. Worryingly, the younger males in his entourage are learning from his example.

The Maasai traditionally revere elephants. However, the expansion of commercial agriculture in areas once dedicated to livestock production is provoking conflict between people and elephants. Although not usually aggressive, elephants can be bad-tempered and their large size makes them dangerous.

In 2016 alone, eight people have been killed by elephants in the area and six more have been seriously injured. An elephant raid on a crop plantation can have a devastating impact on family livelihoods. When farmers find elephants in their crops at night, tempers quickly get inflamed.

In Amboseli, farmers often take matters into their own hands and try to scare the elephants away with flares and noises as well as spears. Tim has survived more than one spear attack and has the scars to prove it.

The collar will keep Tim safe—and away from farmers’ crops. Once an hour the collar lets out a beep, inaudible to humans, that sends details of his location to a satellite. This information can be used by KWS security personnel to track Tim’s position on a map on their cell phone. If the GPS shows Tim standing still for several hours, it sends an alert that Tim may be in trouble.

If it shows him moving close to agricultural areas, they can move in to head him off before he causes any trouble.

Tim goes down Photo/Wildlife Direct

The big day

The idea of attaching a collar to Tim arose almost two years ago, during a board meeting of WildlifeDirect that was held in Amboseli, when we discovered Tim, injured, with pus oozing from a festering would. Tim recovered on this occasion thanks to prompt veterinary attention by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Since then he has been monitored 24/7 by local rangers employed by Big Life Foundation. But WildlifeDirect board member Scott Asen wanted to explore a more effective solution.

“We have to find a way to keep Tim out of farms,” he argued. That way, saving an elephant is also a way to help local communities.

Scott Asen personally put up money to finance the collaring and subsequent monitoring operations. After months of planning, and one aborted attempt, the team met in Amboseli on September 9 to get it done.

Everyone was assigned their roles: one team of vets, led by Dr Isaac Lekolol was in charge of the collaring, another was assigned the task of collecting biometric data, Big Life monitored the entire operation from a light airplane and a helicopter was on standby. KWS rangers were in charge of keeping order.

Big Life rangers stayed awake all night to monitor him. Early on Saturday morning we drove out to where Tim had been seen. He and two other bull elephants, Craig and his nephew Townsend, were grazing in an area of scrubland near the National Park boundary.

The rangers ordered most of the cars, and the local people who had turned up to see what was going on, to pull up and wait a safe distance away. Three cars with the vets and other key personnel moved slowly over the bumpy bushy terrain towards the elephants. The elephants looked up and, with no sign of panic, started to move away. A tense game of cat and mouse—played out in slow motion—followed.

With the assistance of a couple more cars we were finally able to nudge Tim towards an open area where the marksman could get a clear shot. His two companions went off in a huff: they know something was up, and they didn’t like it!

When I saw the vets get out of their car and start to walk, I knew that the dart had found its mark. Soon the vets were at his side, tiny black figures silhouetted against his huge grey bulk. Tim stood motionless for more than seven minutes, while we watched and waited. Then his back legs gave way and he slowly crumpled backwards into a seated position. The vets rushed in to push him over, since he had to be lying on his side for the collaring operation.

While the professionals went to work, measuring his height and length, monitoring his health vitals, and putting on the collar, the other onlookers were invited to come closer and take a look, under watchful supervision of the rangers. We stood in awe: Tim was so huge! Tim was the biggest elephant they had ever collared, STE staff told me afterwards. They had to join two collars together to make one big enough to go round Tim’s neck.

KWS officers restrain Tim. Photo/Wildlife Direct

Three local women, representatives from the Oltome Nadupo Women’s Company, a handicraft and trading company came over. They touched his skin and his tusks. They were fascinated by his toenails, as big as saucers. Although they had lived in the vicinity of elephants all their lives, this was the first time they had touched one.

Then we were asked to move away and the most critical moment of all had arrived, when the antidote would be administered to wake Tim up again. Due to his age, there were serious concerns that he might not recover at all.

Tension rose among the onlookers as the minutes passed. Tim was lying still in the dust, head on the ground, his enormous tusks and trunk stretched out in front of him. Then the huge elephant flapped his ear, got up gently, shook his head vigorously in a vain attempt to dislodge the strange object around his neck, and walked off.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. The operation to attach a tracking collar to Tim had gone perfectly.

Later that day we watched when his two companions found Tim standing quietly in the shade of an acacia tree. Townsend went quickly to his uncle, whom he clearly adores, and reached out with his trunk to greet him affectionately and then, cautiously, inspect the new collar. Townsend was clearly ill at ease, but Tim seemed to reassure him.

Since then Tim has been observed grazing peacefully in Amboseli National Park, with no sign of ill effects.

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