Currently, Mara Elephant Project has 23 collared elephants that we monitor via Google Earth daily. MEP focuses on candidates that will gather useful spatial data meaning elephants in border areas, areas of conflict or areas outside conservancies or national reserves. We are also looking for candidates that represent crop raiding elephants identified across the dispersal area and candidates that represent large herds. The collared elephants in most cases represents a whole herd that may be at risk. MEP’s 23 collared elephants provide data that is being used daily to mitigate human-elephant conflict, inform ranger deployment and anti-poaching work, and promoting transboundary cooperation within the wider ecosystem.
The collars update the elephant’s position on an hourly basis linked to a mobile device which field units can visualize easily. The collaring program enables MEP to follow elephants remotely, deploy rangers on the ground, and conduct monthly aerial monitoring of all the collared elephants and their respective herds. From the MEP headquarters all the elephant’s positions are monitored on georeferenced Google Earth maps and potential threats are relayed to the rapid response teams and patrol teams. The collar software also includes alarms for immobility, geofence breaches and streaks (when an elephant moves quickly potentially signifying it is in danger) which MEP react to at a moment’s notice.
“WE ARE PUTTING COLLARS ON THESE ELEPHANTS SO WE KNOW WHERE THE ELEPHANT IS, IT’S OVERLAID ONTO GOOGLE EARTH. THE COLLARS ALSO HAVE IN-BUILT SOFTWARE THAT IF THEY (THE ELEPHANTS) STOP WE GET IMMOBILITY ALERTS.” Marc Goss, CEO, Mara Elephant Project
MEP monitors it’s 23 collared elephants remotely via Google Earth on a daily basis. We constantly monitor them with our ranger teams in the field and through monthly aerial monitoring flights in our Karen Blixen Camp Ree Park Safari helicopter.
While MEP monitors the elephants on Google Earth, we also populate our geofence database. Geofences act as a warning system for collared elephants when they near settlement areas or farms. Most of the Mara satellite images are 1 m2 resolution so mapping settlement areas and farming areas is very feasible.
Through all of this monitoring, MEP generates monthly tracking reports, constructs density and movement maps, with partner Save the Elephants, and populates a shared geofence database. Each day coordinates are sent to ground patrols who use these to check on the elephants. Depending on the satellite image quality, it is possible to see settlements near the collared elephant. This information is used to anticipate possible human-elephant conflict incidents and intervene before it occurs. Though the aerial monitoring program we have identified that the 23 collared represent between 400 and 600 elephants, as counted each month.
All managers and officers at MEP have now been equipped with iPhones and the STE Tracking App for iOS – a specialized and secure platform for visualizing real time elephant movement within the Mara-DAS. The app also quickly highlights streaks, day and night movements and has a comprehensive base map. Managers can now easily relay coordinates to field teams and track the elephants on the ground and by air.
Collar data is the single best indicator for identifying elephant density hotspots, defining corridors, and illustrating elephant movements to target audiences. Combined data from a sample number of elephant collars spread across the elephant population present an accurate extent of the current elephant rangeland. To date, this data has been used to deploy rapid response units and help MEP develop maps illustrating the density and movement of elephants. We use these maps internally to inform our area of operation and externally as part of the quantifiable data for the Narok County Spatial Plan. More specifically, plans which incorporate “space” or “areas” of land which are currently used by elephants and wildlife, historically used, and build a case for important space for elephants and wildlife in the future. The ongoing collection of data and further analysis will be undertaken to provide the evidence underpinning the communications and advocacy efforts of the organization to protect this critical habitat into the future.
GPS tracking data collected by MEP is stored in a state-of-the-art cloud database system being jointly developed by our primary partner, Save the Elephants (STE), and Vulcan Inc. based in Seattle, Washington. Called the Domain Awareness System (DAS), the system is designed to facilitate the joint analysis and visualization of multiple tracking data sources in relation to relevant operational data and landscape spatial variables.
The Mara-DAS system has incorporated STE’s Standard Analytical Reporting Framework (SARF) tool to quickly generate quarterly outputs on elephant movement, range density hotspots, corridors and streak events and range expansion into new areas. These outputs are included in MEP quarterly reports. It was also recently expanded to include Spydertracks data from the MEP 5Y-REE helicopter. Helicopter movement data can now be analyzed to quantify aerial patrol efforts and patrol distribution to better understand the effect of the MEP helicopter as a tool in human-elephant conflict mitigation.
MEP is also currently working on scientifically analyzing the nearly 700,000 recorded GPS positions that have been collected from 40 elephants tracked in the Maasai Mara since December 2011. This data is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the movements of the elephants within the greater Mara ecosystem and establish a baseline of movement patterns on which we can also monitor changes over time.
Concomitantly, we are collecting information about the set of factors believed to influence elephant movement, such as vegetation, terrain, water availability and the level of human presence as observed by road and settlement densities, so that we can analyze movement in relation to these covariates. Our study, led by Dr. Jake Wall (STE & MEP Science Board), will help to answer questions about the why, where and when of Mara elephant spatial behavior.