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ElephantVoices' Mara field trip October/November 2011

Petter and I just returned from a fabulous field trip in and around the Maasai Mara. We had a wonderful time and we learned a lot, too! We had far too little time just being with elephants, but in the context of involving others in conserving the Mara elephants, that was ok. One main goal during our tour through the ecosystem was to present the unique Mara Elephants Who's Who & Whereabouts databases - developed as part of the Elephant Partners conservation initiative.

The Mara Elephants Who's Who is populated with over 750 elephants and the Whereabouts hold some 400 sightings of elephant groups; both are continuing to grow by the day. The Mapping functionality, which draws on both databases, is completely searchable and highly informative. With each additional sighting we learn something new - and we hope that you will, too.

Elephants respond rapidly to change

The Mara ecosystem represents a patchwork of different habitats, management strategies, and human interventions that create a mosaic of threats and opportunities for elephants. We are beginning to learn how elephants respond to these, and it is fascinating. Some areas are almost entirely occupied by family groups, while males prefer other areas. Although this is typical of elephants, the pattern in the Mara is, to a large extent, influenced by human activities. And these are in flux. The new conservancies are providing safe havens for elephants that didn't exist only a few years ago; migration routes have been blocked by settlement; agricultural areas are on the increase offering nutritious forage; and poaching is on the rise. The elephants are learning and responding rapidly.

The tour

We started our field trip in Mara Naboisho Conservancy on 6th October, where we joined a couple of Norwegian groups hosted by Basecamp Wilderness who had requested a special introduction to elephants. There we also continued our work with African Impact and their volunteers, and gave a lecture on elephants to the students at Koiyaki Guiding School (KGS). Founded seven years ago, KGS is a very successful endeavor - educating local youth for careers in the tourism industry. Through KGS the percentage of local employees in camps and lodges is growing. These students are important ambassadors for the Mara, for wildlife and for elephants! We also spent a day on Ol Kinyei Conservancy where we met with Jake Grieves-Cook, Porini Camps.

Between 13-19th October we worked in Nairobi with our programmers to perfect an Android-based mobile phone application, the Mara EleApp. The App allows for the collection and upload of field data on elephant group sightings, injury and sickness as well as detailed mortality information.

Diminutive female elephant on Olderikesi

On 20th October we drove to Olderikesi Conservancy on the eastern side of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. There we were generously hosted by Calvin Cottar at his 1920s Safari Camp and were introduced by Keith Hellyer to the challenges of the area. While there we were able to add 6 groups to the Whereabouts and 16 new elephants to the Who's Who, including a diminutive female elephant, f0341. The elephants on the eastern side of the Mara gather in large groups and two of those we observed were aggregations of at least 70 elephants.

We spent the next few days back on Mara Naboisho Conservancy in the company of three ElephantVoices donors/volunteers: Junia Machado and Ana Zinger from Brazil and Elena Fieni from Italy. During our stay there we had the pleasure of meeting a group of 85 elephants. Although we knew many of the individuals, about half of the families were new, including a right-one tusked female with an old wound on her right hind leg, probably caused by a spear years ago. We also spent more time with African Impact and introduced to field coordinator, Lincoln Njiru, one of the ten phones for data collection donated by IFAW.

More training of scouts and guides

On 26th October we drove west to Olchorro Conservancy where we stayed at Richard's Camp and met with Richard Roberts, Iain Douglas-Hamilton (Save The Elephants) and Mark Goss who are coordinating the new Mara Elephant Project (MEP). We also had the pleasure of flying with Iain and Richard to look for elephants and areas hit by poaching and conflict. We were introduced to some of the MEP scouts and had the opportunity to watch a parade by conservancy scout recruits.

After an entertaining stay at the camp of Warden, Marc Goss of Mara North Conservancy, we were hosted by Saruni Camp in the Lemek Hills. The MEP scouts were stationed nearby and we spent a day training them to use the Mara EleApp. Having left Saruni Camp we met up with Basecamp Wilderness guide Derrick Nabaala, who was on leave in the area. Sitting by the side of the road we went through the Mara EleApp with him, and left him with a phone.

On 30th we drove to Olare Orok Conservancy where experienced the kind hospitality of Ron and Pauline Beaton. While there we also met with Conservancy Manager, Rob O'Meara, and his wife, Sarah, and Warden, James Kaigil. Sarah shared her Olare Orok elephant photographs with us to help us build up the Mara Elephant Who's Who, and is also organising the use of a phone with the Mara EleApp on Olare Orok and Motorogi Conservancies.

In the hope of meeting new elephants we were taken to neighboring Motorogi Conservancy by the Warden. We were delighted to find a group of 30, which turned out to be Big Mama and her large family. It was wonderful to see her there - she has now been spotted in four separate areas of the Mara and our knowledge of her home range is expanding! We also stopped in to visit guides, Meshack Sayialel at Porini Lion Camp and Ping'ua Nkukuu at Mara Plains, to explain the functionality of the Mara EleApp and to encourage their participation.

Meeting up with old friends - and making some new

We proceeded on to the western side of the Mara where we were guests of Sanctuary Olonana. There we met Marcus Westberg who shared his beautiful photographs of elephants in Mara Conservancy. On 4th November we met Asuka Takita at Mara Conservancy headquarters to catch up with her news and to explain to her the use of the Mara EleApp. From there we proceeded over Mara Bridge and through the Mara Reserve to Basecamp near Talek. Along the way we covered new ground and discovered "new" elephants. We were also pleased to meet a few individuals who were already in the Who's Who. Among others, we met the well-known asymmetrical tusk matriarch, f0576, as well as f0246 with a newly broken left tusk.

The following day we trained Basecamp Guide, Agness Kilena, to collect elephant observations and to use the Mara EleApp.

The end of a fascinating Mara tour

On 6th we proceeded to our final destination, Siana Conservancy, where we stayed with Nick, Betsy, Will and Gini Cowell. Siana has experienced substantial ivory poaching this year and it was not surprising to see that the elephants there were wary. Gini is now working with us, representing Elephant Aware, collecting vital data on the elephants who use this part of the ecosystem.

On our way out of the Mara we passed by Sekenani, to follow up our contact with Park Warden, James Sindyio. During an informative two-hour meeting we discussed all kinds of issues, and collected our permit to access the Reserve when needed. Approaching Narok we made one last stop at the Kenya Wildlife Service District Office to meet with KWS Veterinarian Dominic Mijele. Dominic treats many elephants in the Mara and beyond and we felt that he would be a good person to have the last phone.

Plenty of challenges ahead - join Elephant Partners!

The Mara ecosystem is facing plenty of challenges, with human population growth, poaching and over-grazing to name a few. The need to find ways for humans and wildlife to live in more harmony is ever more critical for all stakeholders - including elephants. Telling both sides of the story is what Elephant Partners is about. By engaging people in the lives of elephants, we are building a community of people that care. Together we'll ensure the survival of the Mara elephants and their habitat. Help us make Elephant Partners go viral - participation of many is key to the future of the Mara elephants! Join us on Facebook, and spread the word.

We deeply appreciate the support and collaboration of the many people and entities mentioned in this informal travel report - and we very much look forward to be back. Thank you!

Joyce and Petter