The Mara Elephant Project HQ is unseen from the rutted dirt road, nestled comfortably amongst the land and wildlife it works so closely with. I was drawn to MEP’s work, and had a desire to learn more, after initially realizing how paralleled their work was to the Mali Elephant Project – a core program of the WILD Foundation for whom I work for. The premise of each organization is the same – elephants are facing innumerable challenges and their only hope for survival is found within the people they are in conflict with.
Anti-poaching efforts on its own would be a noble mission, and one that would occupy a life’s work. Yet, both the Mara and Mali Elephant Project see poaching as one part of the plight against an elephant’s life. In recent years, land use and development has increased, taking away migration paths and grazing areas for these mammoth creatures. As MEP’s head tracker, Wilson, sat me down in front of a computer in their tent-office, he pulled up a satellite map with colored lines darting back and forth across the screen.
“Each of these colored lines represents a collared elephant,” he explained to me. “You can see how most of them stay in specific areas…but not all. Sometimes we have problem elephants that like to go into fields and ruin crops. Those are the ones we have to watch and attempt to deter before the communities and owners of the farms do it first.” – Tracking Manager Wilson Sairowua
Wilson went on to explain how MEP has been employing an array of methods to deter elephants from roaming into communities – everything from using drones for herding the elephants to soaking rags in chili powder and hanging them on fences. To see the work first hand, Wilson took me out on a drive with some of the MEP rangers, looking for elephants who were getting a bit too close for comfort to some local farms.
We soon came to a wide river, with farms bordering the far side, where elephants often cross at night. The river was dotted with 30 to 40 hippos, and one in particular caught our eye – it had a snare wrapped around its neck. The rangers explained to me that villagers will create snare traps in hope of stopping and deterring elephants from continuing on into their crops. Unfortunately, this hippo was caught instead.
The MEP ranger’s jobs aren’t focused solely on elephants. In this situation, for instance, the rangers will wait until the evening when the hippos leave the water and will dart the injured hippo in order to remove the snare. Their prognosis is positive, but reminds them of the tenuous relationship between the wildlife and communities.
Like the Mali Elephant Project, this work in the Mara realizes that both elephants and people need a healthy environment that is productive and resilient to survive a variable climate. Using a “whole system” approach looks to work with all stakeholders to empower local communities to manage the environment in a way that allows for more resources for all, leaves space for wildlife to avoid conflict, and products elephants from illegal killing.
When conservation efforts include boots on the ground, a ranger’s work doesn’t end at the animal they are working to protect. True conservation work looks at the greater picture – one that includes the other wildlife that inhabit the region, the wild lands on which they live, and the people that also call the area home.