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Epic Journey Brings First Elephant to Somalia in 20 Years

Meet Morgan, whose 3-week trek shows anti-poaching efforts could be working

Elephants in Kenya's Tana River, Morgan's home territory (Fiona Rogers/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The old chestnut that elephants never forget has been confirmed by science again and again. And a recent epic trek by a Kenyan pachyderm is no exception. Conservationists recently tracked a male elephant named Morgan from his stomping grounds in coastal Kenya into southern Somalia, making him the first elephant known to visit that country in over 20 years.

Agence France-Presse reports that researchers fitted Morgan, a bull in his 30s, and five other members of his herd with tracking collars in December as part of research project studying the elephants of Kenya’s Tana River Delta. At first, Morgan kept to his normal territory, but on February 16 researchers say he began moving north.

Morgan walked roughly 12 miles per night, hiding during the day in thick woods, an adaptation conservationists think he learned to avoid poachers. His journey lasted 18 days, taking him a total of 137 miles including a couple miles over the border into Somalia where he remained for less than 24 hours before turning around.

While it may seem like Morgan’s journey was just a lark, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder and CEO of the Conservation Group Save the Elephants, thinks the elephant was following old migration routes he learned in his youth that were interrupted by decades of war.

“He obviously had something in his mind about where he was going,” Douglas-Hamilton said in a press release. “Out of all the tracking we’ve done in Africa, these movements—and these circumstances—are exceptional. The wandering of this one bull across the entire expanse of Lamu district, from the Tana river to the Somali border, no-one has seen anything like this before.”

According to The Australian, more than 20,000 elephants lived near the border between Somalia and Kenya in the early 1970s. But pressure from poaching reduced that herd to less than 300. On the Somali side of the border, civil war, political instability and poaching pushed the animals out of the country’s boundaries. Since 1995 there had not been a confirmed elephant sighting in Somalia.

Kenya has become very aggressive against poaching in recent years, employing tracking satellites, forensic science and increased patrols to reduce illegal hunting of its 38,000 remaining elephants and 1,000 rhinos, Aggrey Mutambo reports for The Daily Nation. Agreements signed in January with the US Department of the Interior and USAID to boost surveillance of ivory smuggling and provide equipment and technical aid against poaching will help even more.

Security operations near the Somali border in which wildlife officers and soldiers patrol together have stabilized the area as well. “We’re seeing more elephants...now,” Kenyan Wildlife Service Company Commander for Lamu District Charles Omondi tells Save the Elephants. “This may be due to the improved security. Unlike previous years when there was poaching, last year we didn’t record a single illegally killed elephant.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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