On the Trail of Elephants in Mali and Kenya

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Most of us use our GPS to navigate the freeways and city streets. But in Mali and Kenya, zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton has put global positioning to a far more interesting use—tracking elephants.

Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, has weathered droughts, floods and even rhino attacks to study elephant behavior. He set the standard for elephant research with his first study 40 years ago, which documented elephant social behavior in Tanzania through monitoring births, deaths and migrations. He has continued to develop innovative approaches to research and conservation in addition to becoming a leading voice against elephant poaching and the ivory trade. (His studies of elephant migration in Mali were the subject of a 2005 Smithsonian article.)

Douglas-Hamilton’s study of Malian elephant migration is ongoing—he recently partnered with Google Earth to show the real-time location of his elephant subjects via satellite images—and he is also tracking elephants in the Samburu region of northern Kenya. Douglas-Hamilton was recently named the 2010 winner of the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation and will lecture at the National Zoo on September 29. He spoke with Jessica Righthand.

What changes have you seen recently in the lives of the elephants you study in Mali and Samburu?

Since 2005, elephants in Samburu were living in as near as it gets to an elephant paradise. But things started changing in 2008, and we noticed an increase in poaching for ivory. We then had a severe drought that lasted until the end of 2009. The rains failed, and many more elephants died than usual, both of drought and from poaching. Then the rains came, and a ferocious tsunami-like wall of water swept down the river. It swept my research camp away, and also my wife’s camp (Oria Douglas-Hamilton runs a small safari camp called Elephant Watch Safaris). However, the good side of the rain was that there was plenty of grass that grew.

During the drought, there was simply nothing left for the cattle to eat, so all the nomadic people invaded the national reserve, where the elephants lived, because that was the only place they could find grass. Thousands of their cattle died despite this, but the wild animals were already suffering from this severe drought and from poaching and now had this influx of cattle. The Samburu elephant population had been increasing for a good twenty years or more. The drought checked the increase.

What about in Mali?

In Mali, the desertification is at a far more advanced stage than it is in northern Kenya. In 2009, there was a severe drought there too, and the one source of water on which the Mali elephants depend during the dry season, Lake Banzena, dried up completely. We had a panic last year in May because the rains had not arrived. There was no water left for the elephants to drink, and we wondered what was going to happen to them. We went into a crash program to build them a drinking trough and to pump water up from underground. So that trough was made and set in concrete, and as the concrete was drying, the rains came. We were saved by the rains!

But both areas are connected by one thing, which is nomadic people, and in both cases the overstocking of livestock has greatly degraded the habitats outside the protected areas of Samburu and adjacent Buffalo Springs. But in Mali, there’s no protected area, and the land is far more degraded than in Samburu. We’ve still got to solve those problems.

How does your approach to conservation have to differ from Samburu to Mali?

I think our approaches have differences and similarities. The similarities are that in both places the people who live there are pasturers and nomads predominantly, with scattered agriculture, so they’re also both peoples who are relatively tolerant towards elephants. In Samburu, though, there was a brief period when there was severe ivory poaching back in the 1970s and 1980s. That did not happen in Mali. In Mali, there’s never been severe poaching for ivory.

It also differs because of the behavior of the elephants. The defining feature of the elephants in Mali is their migration. It’s the be-all and end-all of their existence. And anyone who wants to look at their future has to look at that migration. That’s why our radio-tracking project there is absolutely of the first importance.

And do you do the same radio tracking in Samburu?

We do it on a much more massive scale in Samburu. Samburu is a much more complex environment in a way than Mali. In Mali, we’ve got something like 500 elephants. In Samburu, we have 7,500 elephants. In Mali, you have no effective protected area. In Samburu, you’ve got a kaleidoscope of areas of different land use owned by different ethnic groups, all of which represent a different risk or benefit to the elephants. There are many more people, many more elephants, and they’re all interacting, and elephants are only one of the many species of wildlife that exist in Samburu. Unfortunately in Mali, everything else has pretty much been wiped out, except for a handful of gazelles, some baboons and some warthogs. But the elephants could be the focus for the regeneration of that area, and that’s our hope.

What does the future look like for the elephants in Samburu and in Mali, and in Africa in general?

In a bigger perspective, the real horror story at the moment is happening in the Congo, and I’ve just been hearing about enormous destruction due to the ivory trade. The majority of elephants in Africa are severely threatened by the ivory trade.

But it looks like the future is more secure for elephants in Samburu than in Mali. Because there are more elephants, there’s a much stronger tradition of conservation, there are a lot of very dedicated NGOs working and there is a government wildlife service, which is highly experienced and very well trained. The downside is that we could be vulnerable to another outbreak of ivory poaching. Having a lot of people means that there’s a far greater human/elephant conflict. But by and large, I’m optimistic that some of the really good folk doing good things will come out on top.

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