In a dim morning light, a small aircraft heats up its engine and prepares for take-off at the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. The pilot holds on for a few minutes for the playful Jackal to swerve on the runway before he sets off for the blue skies.
For one hour, the yellow plane flies 200 metres above the ground, circling the 50,000-acre conservancy east of Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Narok. Zebras and towering giraffes seem not to be bothered by Marcel Romdane’s routine.
Romdane, a German pilot who came to the conservancy six months ago flies for elephants in Mara. Every morning he flies over the area to keep an eye on them. His mission is to ensure poachers are kept away and save the endangered animals.
In the afternoon, I find him seated at the Ol Seki Hemingways Mara library reading updates on the foundation’s Facebook page — Fly4elephants. After a moment of silence, he points out the increasing public interest in one of the stories he posted two weeks ago.
It’s the story of Toto, a 15-year old elephant who fell victim of poaching. Toto was bruised by a poisoned arrow and wandered to the Naboisho. Effort by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officers to save his life failed when he succumbed to injuries.
Days before Toto died, Romdane kept updating the public on his progress — treatment, response and finally death. One of the Facebook posts shows Toto grazing. About 36,100 Facebook fans sent positive comments on the post last month.
However, days later a photo of frail Toto made the public lose hope. One reader, Rikki Malaika, wrote: “I followed the story as well. It was obvious (his death) when I saw the photos of him losing weight.”
The last post Romdane made on Toto was about his family — a herd of elephants who came to bid him goodbye. The emotional posts show the attachment Romdane has for elephants.
Taking time to sob, he ponders over their intelligence equating them to humans. He didn’t quite understand how they knew their kin was dead.
Wild animals fed on Toto’s carcass — perhaps allowing nature to take its course. But on March 2 afternoon, Romdane sought to keep Toto’s spirit alive on film.
Facebook followers waited patiently for its release on YouTube. The eight-minute video, which is now online, documents Toto’s last moments, the frantic efforts to save him and KWS mandate.
Toto’s appearance in the film was by coincidence, the documentary was initially meant for charity — Fly4elephants — but Romdane changed his mind and made it a tribute to Toto and highlight the impact of poaching on endangered animals.
Romdane fights for elephants from the sky and on the Internet. This is where he feels, he can make the greatest impact.
“You can ignore it, but you can’t still overlook the fact that the world runs on Facebook. It is the medium to get the news across to one billion people. You cannot reach them on TV or any other channel. Facebook is easier and doesn’t cost a thing,” says Romdane, a former photographer.
Romdane runs the project with co-founder Nicole Tepperies — his girlfriend. He first came to Africa in 2005 with his father and later made several trips with Nicole. In 2011, he took an interest in Kenya’s elephants and decided to join in war on poaching.
“I was fed up with poaching reports in Kenya on German media,” he said.
Romdane took up piloting classes, bought Piper Super cub plane and came to Kenya. Initially, it was difficult to convince sponsors to buy his idea. However, after two months, hospitality firm Hemingways Collection offered to help him. They first bought his wildlife photos and later provided him a home.
Six months on, Ol Seki Hemingways Mara assistant camp manager James Maina admits Romdane’s impact has been felt in the camp.
“I have seen an increase in the number of elephants in the park. It might not be directly related to his work but what he does has brought serenity which attracts them here,” says Maina.
Hemingways built a hangar for his aircraft while another sponsor offered him a bigger propeller and tyres. He also has a few donors giving between $100 to $150 a month. He appeals to sponsors to support his work or donate an additional plane.
“Kora will be the next place after Maasai Mara,” says Romdane.