Health & Fitness

A passion for leading jumbos away from conflict

Mr Festus Ihwagi of Save  the Elephants at work and below, the underpass: Conservationists aim at stopping the ‘rivalry’ between man and the animals. Suleiman  Mbatia
Mr Festus Ihwagi of Save the Elephants at work and below, the underpass: Conservationists aim at stopping the ‘rivalry’ between man and the animals. Suleiman Mbatia 

While many would call monitoring wild animals a ‘strange career’ of sorts, to Susie Weeks and Festus Ihwagi, it is a passion, an inspiration.

Last weekend, the duo was putting the final touches to the new face of conservation: a migration corridor.

In a shift from the more traditional conservation method of building electric fences, the elephant corridor seeks to provide an alternative natural passage for the jumbos in the Ewaso ecosystem.

The initiative seeks to re-direct elephants to an underground route to reduce cases of crop and property damage by the animals, who are known to be ‘stubborn’ about which path to use.

“The new elephant corridor will re-link Mount Kenya to wildlife areas from the Ngare Ndare forest to the North and North West of the mountain. It will direct them away from conflict spots,” said Ms Weeks, the executive director of Mount Kenya Trust.

Previous efforts have centred on setting up of fences to cover areas occupied by wildlife, but this redirected elephants into farms, resulting in losses for farmers, who are also known to kill the ‘intruders.’

For the Sh80 million corridor, the tack is changing. It will be an electric fence with an underpass. Virgin Atlantic airlines has donated Sh20 million for the cause.

Ms Weeks says the persistent human-wildlife conflict has contributed significantly to killing and poaching of the animals, eating into Kenya’s elephant population.

“The dream is to see people realise the long-term benefits of protecting the environment and wildlife. The tourism industry is one of the country’s biggest earners and yet we are standing by idly while wildlife is poached. There is no bright tomorrow for Kenya if this is ignored,” she says.

While the Mount Kenya Trust is erecting a fence and building an underpass, another group — Save the Elephants — is keen on tracking them using digital systems.

“Our mission is to study and know how elephants perceive the ecosystem and how they make decisions within the ecosystem.

Through geo-fencing technique, messages can be sent to researchers and managers,” said Mr Ihwagi, a geographical information systems analyst at Save the Elephants (STE). “Working with Kenya Wildlife Service, the STE team has developed a mobile technology-based means of mitigating human elephant conflicts — geo-fencing. Elephants send text messages to selected mobile phone numbers,” he says.

Animals are fitted with collars linked to servers under the digital tracking system. Their movement is monitored through the network to establish where an elephant is.

An interference with the collar will send the signal that the animal is in danger, perhaps poachers have struck.

However, pricing and maintenance of the devices have combined to hurt tracking. A collar costs between $4,000 and $5,000 while maintaining the device in a year, which include aerial monitoring elephants, data server administration, satellite data operations, downloading and data analysis hit $10,000 (Sh800,000).

The first batch of radio collars were deployed in Samburu in 1998. Since then, over 90 elephants have been collar-tracked and the trackers have lost five collars to poachers since 2008.

There are 7,500 elephants in this ecosystem according to the elephant census in 2008; there were 5,400 elephants in the ecosystem in 2002, showing the project was bearing fruits.

According to the count, carried out every five years, Tsavo, which is the largest ecosystem, was a host to almost 12,000 elephants.

Ms Weeks says of the corridor: “At the end of the day, poaching and the destruction of forests is a severe threat to the country and if not taken seriously, it will be gone before we know it.” Managers of the project are betting on animals getting used to the new migration route for a successful venture, which is propped by well-wishers who value wildlife conservation.

The Mount Kenya Trust is named after conservationist Bill Woodley who, it is said, dedicated half of his life to work in national parks to protect the mountain and the surrounding environment.

Elephant specialist Iain Douglas-Hamilton founded Save the Elephants as a charity with sights on securing a future for the jumbos and sustain the beauty of where the animals live. The interests of the two organisations cover Laikipia, Samburu and Isiolo ecosystems, making it the second largest elephant populated region outside protected areas that are mainly under the Kenya Wildlife Service.