During January and February we (Petter and Joyce) spent some very productive weeks in the Mara ecosystem getting the pilot phase of Elephant Partners up and running. Our primary purpose during this trip was to learn as much as possible about the Mara elephants and the challenges they are facing, while fine-tuning the scope of the project and testing out equipment and technical solutions for data collection and upload. We visited five different conservancies and three group ranches, met up with many stakeholders and potential collaborators, trained quite a few conservancy scouts and guides and held lectures about elephants, their behavior and the Elephant Partners initiative.
Joyce's trip started on Mara Naboisho Conservancy, where we plan to establish a base for the project. Mara Naboisho is a new 200 sq km conservancy, initiated by Norwegian-based Basecamp Explorer/Foundation and 502 Maasai landowners. Mara Naboisho is an amazing area in terms of wildlife and habitat, and together with neighbouring conservancies a crucial landscape for protecting the world famous wildebeest migration between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara as well as for general movement of wildlife, including elephants.
Joyce spent several days on Mara Naboisho training instructors of African Impact. The organisation offers volunteer work in Africa and Elephant Partners is on their list of opportunities. African Impact is also helping us to test out techniques and equipment for monitoring elephants and sharing information.
During those few days together we added 47 new individuals to Elephant Partners ID registry and resighted quite a few who we had seen before. The most exciting resighting was the beautiful female f0096 who was last seen in 1998 40 kilometers away.
While at Mara Naboisho Joyce gave a lecture to a women's group and another to the newly graduated conservancy scouts. She also discussed the development of educational material by ElephantVoices for the Koiyaki Guiding School.
On Mara North Conservancy Joyce was generously hosted by Karen Blixen Camp and spent three days training Cille Willumsgård, a young Danish woman who is collaborating with us as part of her Master's field work supported by Karen Blixen Camp. Petter joined Joyce and Cille there and we discussed the project with the Conservancy Manager, Marc Goss. During the three days with Cille we added about 35 elephants to the registry and Cille has since then built the number up to over 150 individuals. She will be sending her photographs to us later this month so that these individuals can be incorporated into the overall Elephant Partners ID registry. It will be interesting to see how many of these individuals have already been registered. We know of at least two: a crazy looking female with 3 tusks (photo below) and a magnificent male (video below). However, Cille observed both of these individuals inside the Maasai Mara National Reserve rather than on Mara North Conservancy.
The photographs really help us to understand where individual elephants are moving, and we are very curious to know how far afield the elephants from Mara North go. These particular elephants face enormous levels of conflict with people. Understanding their movement patterns will help to mitigate the threats and ease the relationship between people and elephants.
Mara female with three tusks - f0245.
We left Mara North Conservancy and spent a day on Mara Conservancy, where we held discussions with manager, Brian Heath, and veterinarian, Asuka Takita, who has contributed hundreds of ID photographs to Elephant Partners. On our way out of the conservancy we met the magnificent musth male who Cille later photographed - the male in the video above right.
By evening we were back on Olare Orok Conservancy, where we were hosted by eco-friendly Porini Lion Camp. There we held discussions with the Conservancy Manager, Rob O'Meara, introduced elephants and the project to scouts and guides and gave a lecture on elephant behavior and conservation to them. Naturally we also spent quite a bit of time just watching and photographing elephants. Among the many elephants we met was a resighting of f0004 who Joyce photographed in 1998 in Musiara. We also met a large group of elephants that included a female who had been photographed near Governor's Camp in 2007 by our friend Doug Aja! Each photograph is a piece in the jig saw puzzle!
From Olare Orok we spent a few more days back on Mara Naboisho before proceeding to Ol Kinyei Conservancy, where we discussed the Elephant Partners initiative with Manager, Sammy Lempusia. We were fortunate enough to meet an elephant family group who we then sighted again on Mara Naboisho several days later.
From there we drove on to the rather bumpy main road between Sekenani Gate and Narok, met up with Stephen Kisotu of Friends of Conservation and proceeded with him to Maji Moto Group Ranch. We spent three days with Stephen who introduced us to some of the opportunities (primarily the remaining corridors) and threats (mainly human-elephant conflict) facing elephants on the eastern side of the Maasai Mara. Stephen Kisotu introduced us to Maasai elder, Salaton ole Ntutu, and we more than enjoyed our stay at his Maji Moto Camp.
Salaton was well conversant with the problems facing elephants and people and together we discussed how to alleviate conflict by providing water for elephants away from the village (elephants come to the Maji Moto spring at night and depart early in the morning, endangering children on their way to school). We had fun and interesting visit to Enkiteng Lepa School, assessing how Elephant Partners possibly can contribute toward the conservation of elephants through education via the big network of schools in the Mara ecosystem.
From Maji Moto we went on to Naikarra Group Ranch, where Stephen (with whom we stayed) introduced us to the remaining elephant corridors and the growing human-elephant conflict due to land being turned over to agriculture. Stephen explains the conflict in the short video clip (right), while we were visiting an area of new settlements in traditional "elephant country".
We departed Naikarra arriving back at Mara Naboisho in time to meet Richard Roberts who flew in from Ol Chorro Conservancy. Richard is setting up a rapid response team to reduce human-elephant conflict and related elephant mortality on the western side of the Mara.
His initiative will be receiving help from Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, who will be placing tracking collars on 10-15 elephants to monitor movement patterns in relation to conflict. We will be collaborating closely with both of them.
Joyce departed from the Mara the following day and spent the next day in Nairobi discussing Mara elephant plans with Iain while Petter remained in the Mara and got stranded in the bush with clutch problems! After sorting out the clutch and holding several more meetings Petter proceeded to Nairobi to initiate the building of online housing for all of the elephant information we hope to collect and share with you.
We look forward to working with the many people we met on our journey - a harambee spirit (Harambee is a Kiswahili word meaning working together for a common purpose) is vital for the conservation of the Mara elephants and a successful Elephant Partners!
In early 2011 ElephantVoices launched "Elephant Partners", an elephant conservation project based in the Maasai Mara ecosystem. The goal of Elephant Partners is to develop a working model for citizens to monitor and protect elephants. The first half of 2011 will be a pilot period - while we continue to prepare and fundraise for the main phase of the project which will start later in the year.
The concept, put simply, is to connect individual people - guides, scouts, rangers, researchers, photographers, tourists, people of the Maasai Mara and all people who care - with the lives of individual elephants. Through use of the Internet and social and educational media our intention is to develop a community of people sharing their knowledge about the Mara elephants and working together to protect them. Harambee is a Kiswahili word meaning working together for a common purpose. It is our belief that this harambee spirit can engender the understanding, compassion, enthusiasm and collective custodianship needed for people and elephants to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. We hope that it will also help to focus attention on, and bolster the important work of, the newly formed conservancies, since the future of elephants and other landscape species depends upon their commercial success.
We are building an online searchable database to store elephant identification photographs - so that people (Maasai Mara residents, visitors and friends worldwide) can get to know elephants by name. And we will be preparing an online database and blog where Mara friends can upload observations, photos and comments on Mara elephants (their behavior, movements, interactions, conflicts, threats, etc.) to share with other participants, the authorities and the general public. Through the use of mobile phones we will be developing an efficient way for people to collect and upload observations.
Matriarch f0001 seen in 1998 near Musiara swamp...
Elephants attract global attention because they are both charismatic and threatened, and because they play an important role in the structure of ecosystems. Due to their immense size, sociality and intelligence, they also serve as important Ambassadors for other species. If we are able to save space for elephants, we will protect the other species, along with them.
Current ecological theory argues that elephants are best conserved through the management of linkages between landscapes, which can account for their large-scale movements. When elephants are confined by fences, by conflict with people or by threats from poachers they can have a negative impact on habitat and, consequently, on biodiversity. But when they are permitted to roam, their presence and foraging creates a mosaic of habitats that promotes biodiversity.
Being intelligent social animals, elephants learn where they are safe with extraordinary speed. They are vulnerable to ivory poaching and conflict with people, and respond to these threats from people with amplified aggression or by retreating into protected habitats for safety. As long as poaching and conflict remain threats to elephants, how can these crucial ecological linkages be maintained? This is where the Maasai Mara Conservancies and the behavior of people is so important.
People and elephants need a mutually beneficial relationship
To encourage elephants to use a wider area and, simultaneously, reduce human-elephant conflict, elephants need access to a network of places where they feel safe that are away from areas where elephant cause conflict. Such safe-havens can be provided by a mosaic of protected areas, conservancies, private and community land where, concurrently, people can benefit through tourism from the presence of elephants. Smart land use, goodwill, understanding and effort are needed to build a relationship between people and elephants that works to the advantage of both parties. Compassion is also a crucial ingredient in this relationship that is often missing in conservation projects (see new conservation movement www.compassionateconservation.org) and is key to the community Elephant Partners hopes to engender.
Ever since our fascinating visit to Sri Lanka in 2003 we have been following the elephant situation on this beautiful island with increasing anxiety. Forgive us for naively thinking that a Buddhist society with a value system that recognises non-human animals as an equal life form would take better care of elephants than others. In truth, the way in which elephants in the wild AND in captivity are managed and cared for in Sri Lanka is in desperate need of improvement. Indeed, in August this year Sri Lankan wildlife veterinarians went on strike to protest the mismanagement of elephants.
In this day and age of Internet communication, every article published is in the global domain. The appalling stories appearing online do not give confidence in the Government of Sri Lanka's ability to either care for the well being of elephants held captive, nor to secure a future for the wild members of a species so culturally and touristically important to the country. Both the Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, and Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife, S. M. Chandrasena, must be informed that people all over the world care about what is happening and that, in addition to the purely conservation and ethical concerns, the continuing mismanagement and mistreatment of elephants has the potential to jeopardize Sri Lanka's tourism industry and must be addressed. The Ministers must also be informed that many of the human-elephant conflict interventions are merely exacerbating the situation. We believe both Ministers should be approached following a Cabinet reshuffle 22 Nov., since Minister Rajapaksa continue to be responsible for tourist-related issues, while S. M. Chandrasena's Ministry from the same date is responsible for Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The death of a Magnificent Tusker - and a call to action
This article and call to action is prompted by the terrible news of a magnificent tusker, "Parakrama", who was killed last week while being translocated, a practice that has led to numerous other heart-breaking elephant tragedies in Sri Lanka. Our readers may remember the story of "the lone battle of a four-legged Brigadiere," for example, who after being translocated, took to the sea, was towed in by the Navy, only to be found dead weeks later having fallen into a well. Like the "Brigadiere", the death of Parakrama has led to headlines around the world, and on Sri Lanka: Tusker tragedy prompts calls for safer transportation and Death of a tusker.
At the time of the incident, we felt that the news of Parakrama's death was just too upsetting to share through ElephantVoices. On reflection, however, and after many emails back and forth with our Sri Lankan colleagues, we decided to post one of many articles last week on Facebook. Parakrama, one of the country's few remaining tuskers, had been called a "National Treasure." His death is a symbol of Sri Lanka's many elephant conservation and welfare woes, and his passing at the hands of the Department of Wildlife Conservation must serve as a wake-up call. Accidents can happen, of course, but in our opinion there are far too many mistakes being made in the management of Sri Lanka's elephants.
No more superficial fixes - long-term solutions needed
More than 50 people and 228 elephants, an estimated 5% of the remaining wild population, were killed last year as a consequence of conflict. Translocating one elephant after another around the country, putting up fences that cause elephants to starve, and "resettling" elephants by driving them to new locations will not solve the problem. Human-elephant conflict is a land use issue that cannot be solved by piecemeal actions of the Department of Wildlife Conservation alone, especially when inspired by misled political pressure. There is an urgent need to come up with long-term solutions, which can only be found by engaging the country's many experienced conservationists, scientists, veterinarians and naturalists as well as individuals representing the Ministries governing land, settlement, agriculture, water and forestry. Lasting solutions must be found and new policies set for land use in order to halt Sri Lanka's further decline into a destructive cycle of violence between people and elephants - with elephants the ultimate losers.
Elephants will continue to try to live in the manner in which they have evolved. Therefore we urge the authorities to include elephant behaviour and movements patterns, and the role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, as a starting point. With open dialogue and a more holistic and compassionate approach Sri Lanka can find workable solutions for the country's wild elephant population that offers hope for a better, kinder, more sustainable future for people as well as elephants. With the current World Bank project focusing on these issues there is no better time than the present to formulate new policies.
Sri Lanka's elephants and the people of Sri Lanka deserve and need to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. Parakrama's death must not be in vain.
Please write to Basil Rajapaksa and S. M. Chandrasena to express your concerns: Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development, Ministry of Economic Development Presidential Secretariat Colombo 1 Office: Jagath/Aruna - for meetings/appointments, tel: +94-11-2333268, Fax: +94-11-2438045, E-mail: arunakgap(at)yahoo.com), Political Secretary, tel: 94-777445560
S. M. Chandrasena, Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife, Ministry of Agrarian Services and Wildlife. Govijana Mandiraya, Rajamalwatte, Battaramulla, Sri Lanka, Fax #: +94-11 2887480 (direct).
Better treatment of captive elephants, no more exports
The Sri Lankan Government must also introduce legislation to protect elephants in captivity, as such laws are currently lacking. For example, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage has become a haphazard breeding ground for elephants without proper plans for the future well being of these individuals. People in high places have taken decisions that have led to these babies being abducted from their Pinnawala mothers and gifted to temples or individuals, or sent to the Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo.
Many of the privately owned elephants are malnourished, lonely and abused. Those in the Dehiwala Zoo stand restrained, on concrete, biting their chains, straining against them and swaying in stereotypic behavior. Some of these individuals have been routinely shuffled about between facilities while others have been exported to foreign zoos with callous disregard for the special bonds that exist between elephants.
Since 2002 baby elephants have been shipped to zoos in China, Japan, Croatia and the Republic of Korea; New Zealand is next in line. US Zoos, too, including the National Zoo in Washington DC, are now eyeing Pinnawala as a source of elephants to fill their new exhibits. Indeed Minister Rajapaksa, himself, handed over the babies in Korea. Are foreign zoos really an appropriate destination for baby elephants, an Appendix I listed species, who should be properly cared for on Sri Lanka? We urge the Sri Lanka authorities to address these issues putting the well being of individual elephants before profit and politics. Elephants are intelligent, emotional and social beings not mere commodities to "gift" and do with what we will.
These photos are taken in Dehiwala Zoo (National Zoological Gardens, Colombo) during the last two years, most of them in August 2010. The smallest elephant, Indi, was abducted from her mother in Pinnawala. Joe, the only African elephant, is separated from the others by a wall, which he must reach over to obtain the physical contact fundamental to an elephant's wellbeing. The photographs speak for themselves of the desperation and pain these individuals suffer day in and day out.
The new World Bank project mentioned in the article linked from the screenshot to the right could very well be an important milestone in the efforts towards conserving Sri Lanka's elephants for future generations. On the other hand - new roads through protected areas without proper environmental assessment is yet another serious threat to Sri Lanka's elephants and sensitive ecosystems. As a side note it could be said that the title "The road to destroying natural ecosystems" easily could have been seen covering the ongoing discussion about a proposed new road through Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Hopefully both the Sri Lankan and Tanzanian governments will realize what's at stake before it is too late. Both countries have a lot to lose!
ElephantVoices has initiated a new project in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. The concept, put simply, is to connect individual people - guides, scouts, rangers, researchers, photographers, tourists, people of the Maasai Mara and all people who care - with the lives of individual elephants.
Through use of the Internet and social and educational media our intention is to develop a community of people working together to share their knowledge about the Mara elephants and to monitor and protect them.
Harambee is a Kiswahili word meaning working together for a common purpose. It is our belief that this harambee spirit can engender the understanding, compassion and collective custodianship needed for people and elephants to find ways to coexist in a mutually beneficial way.
One of our first tasks is to collect photographs of individual Maasai Mara elephants and to build a searchable online catalogue - or Elephant Facebook, if you will - where their profiles will be stored.
So far, relying on photos that Joyce took in 1998 and with the help of Asuka Takita, Petter Granli, Pat Awori and others, this year, we have catalogued ID photos and basic information for over 260 adult elephants. Based on these photographs we have already learned that some individuals move back and forth between Musiara and Naboisho, a distance of almost 50 km. Not surprising, perhaps, but each piece of information makes us more knowledgable and better able to find solutions to problems.
We are enormously pleased with the enthusiasm we have received thus far. We have a long way to go to catalogue all of the Mara elephants and to gather and share information about them, but that is where you come in! We will soon be posting information about how you can participate in Elephant Partners. We hope that you will join us in this endeavour - read more about the project here. And stay tuned for information to come!
Matriarch f0001 seen in 1998 near Musiara swamp...
In early 2011, ElephantVoices launched "Elephant Partners", an elephant conservation project in the Maasai Mara ecosystem. The goal of Elephant Partners is to develop a working model for citizens to monitor and protect elephants. This initiative is made possible through support from the generous organisations and inviduals listed at the bottom of this page.
The concept is to connect individual people - guides, scouts, researchers, photographers, tourists, people of the Maasai Mara and all those who care - with the lives of individual elephants. Through use of the Internet and social and educational media, our intention is to develop a community sharing knowledge of the Mara elephants and working together to protect them. This page, via the links on top of it, is a gateway to the unique online databases, which are core tools for this conservation initiative.
Elephants are important for the survival of the Mara
As an iconic landscape species elephants are important to the survival of the Mara. They play a key role in the ecosystem and, through tourism, in the local economy. Their great size, sociality, intelligence and charisma make them important Ambassadors for other threatened species. Yet, the Mara elephants are currently threatened by habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and ivory poaching. Many elephants are killed each year and an even greater number are wounded by spears, arrows and snares. By engaging people in the monitoring and protection of elephants, we hope to engender enthusiasm for the collective custodianship necessary to protect elephants and the ecosystem.
The data collected will include group size, location and composition and will determine the habitat use and migration routes used by individual elephants. These data will help wildlife managers protect elephants and to determine the corridors vital to their survival. Elephant Partners will make these and other baseline data available to the public. Furthermore, the project will help focus attention on the newly formed conservancies and bolster their important work; the future of elephants and other landscape species depends upon their commercial success.
Follow and support the Mara elephants
One of the main components of this initiative is a fully searchable online database for storing information, photographs and identifying features of each elephant - the Mara Elephant Who's Who - so that anyone can get to know them as individuals. This database will be populated by ElephantVoices, with photo contributions from those of you residing in or visiting the Maasai Mara. You will find an article about The Mara Elephant Who's Who and how to identify elephants published on National Geographic's A Voice for Elephants 16 August 2013, with photos and educational video.
Via the online interface of a second Mara Elephant Whereabouts database people can upload their own observations, photos and comments on the Mara elephants (their behavior, movements, interactions, conflicts, threats, etc.). This database is related to an advanced mapping functionality showing selected location data. You have to be a registered user to access the above databases - they are both password-protected.
Furthermore, in November 2011 we launched the Mara EleApp. This app, for Android-based phones, will provide an efficient way for people to collect and upload observations directly to the above mentioned Observations database.