Elephant collaring in Kenya’s Tsavo Park

Ten elephants regularly found near the Standard Gauge Railway will be fitted with advanced satellite radio tracking collars in the Tsavo ecosystem. This exercise will be conducted from March 14-17, 2016 and is the start of a joint project initiated by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with Save the Elephants (STE) providing technical and logistical support. It aims to provide data for long-term planning and to understand the effectiveness of wildlife crossings and their sustainability.

A 133 km section of the 483km high-speed railway passing through the Tsavo Conservation Area is being raised above the normal terrain levels and fenced off. The effect of this is that the largest National Park in Kenya, home to the largest population of elephants will be cut in two, making wildlife mobility dependant on the wildlife crossing structures put in place. Elephants from both sides of the railway will be collared to monitor scientifically how they adapt to the railway. The operation will be done mainly through aerial teams, with a KWS helicopter leading the darting operation, backed by KWS Veterinary and capture staff and STE collaring specialists.

By generating detailed maps showing the extend of the use of the wildlife crossing structures the collared elephants will provide an enhanced understanding of connectivity in the Tsavo Ecosystem, which will in turn influence future infrastructural planning.

Dr. Benson Okita, STE’s Head of Monitoring said when commenting on the project: ‘This project is the first of its kind in Kenya and indeed in Africa. Beyond basic land-use planning, it seeks to understand how elephant movements are influenced by a major infrastructural project. It is an excellent precursor for future planning in wildlife rich areas where development is set to take place, such as on the LAPSSET corridor in Northern Kenya’.

With more than half of global population growth between 2015 and 2050 expected to occur in Africa, infrastructural projects like this one will become commonplace. ‘As the use of elephant movement data to inform the planning process is refined, more precise spatial definition will allow the country to proactively secure space for wildlife as the Kenyan population grows’ said KWS Deputy Director of Species Conservation and Management, Mr. Patrick Omondi.

In addition to the building of the Standard Gauge Railway, new projects in the wider Tsavo area include the construction of the expanded Mombasa – Nairobi dual carriage highway. With human population along the route and in particular outside the Tsavo park area increasing and more farmlands appearing, the collaring of these elephants will also assist with detection of serial crop raiding elephants and identifying some of the major causes of human elephant conflict.

Water availability, forage quality and quantity determine the ranging patterns and migratory behaviour of elephants. Seasonal fluctuations in forage quality/quantity and water availability reflect in elephant migratory behaviour. In addition to seasonality, availability of these resources has been affected by land fragmentation from competing land-uses such as agriculture, human settlement and infrastructure development.

The collaboration between government and the private sector underscores the importance of pooling financial and academic resources to allow conservation and development to coexist. The new KWS Director General Mr. Kitili Mbathi intimated his interest to work closely with NGOs conducting research for the betterment of Kenya’s wildlife at a meeting in mid February between conservation NGOs and KWS held in the Tsavo area.

The research element of the project will indientally be conducted by graduate students under the joint supervision of KWS and STE. The project will build upon earlier research carried out by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which was concluded in 2012. Others collaborators on elephant conservation in this particular project include the Tsavo Trust, the Tsavo Conservation Group and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

‘The Standard Gauge Railway is perhaps the most important transport project Kenya has seen since the building of the first railway in the early 20th century’ added Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder of Save the Elephants. ‘If research such as this can help influence the way development is carried out, then we are truly on the path to securing a future for wildlife into perpetuity’.