Indianapolis Zoological Society Continues Their MEP Support

Mara Elephant Project is pleased to announce the continuation of our partnership with the Indianapolis Zoological Society. The Indy Zoo originally supported the protection and monitoring of Vasco, originally collared by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and MEP in the Mau Forest. Now, they’ve increased that support with a three-year $34,491 grant to MEP for the protection and monitoring of two “cropaholic” elephants in the Greater Mara Ecosystem. Human-elephant conflict (HEC) poses a significant challenge to conservation and is a problem we believe will get worse as we see human population and agricultural expansion. For elephants in the Maasai Mara Kenya, conflict usually manifests as crop-raiding and infrastructure damage and, in extreme cases, also includes human threat, injury and death. Elephants are known to enjoy maize, sorghum, and other crops. They can also cause damage when they enter settlement areas, which can occur when they get caught in fencing or during migratory movements. Expanding agriculture in the ecosystem is thought to be driving conflict levels higher. Since 2016, MEP has recorded a 268% increase in crop damage incidents by elephants (45 in 2016, 121 in 2019). Overall, conflict rose from 91 total events in 2016 to 181 in 2019. In the same time period, elephant deaths from conflict have outpaced those from poaching.

Controlling conflict is difficult as elephants are intelligent and use different tactics and adapt these to raid crops while avoiding mitigations from farmers and wildlife rangers. Elephants have been observed using staging areas to raid. These forest patches provide safe refuge for resting during the day, while allowing them to stay close to crops. Individual elephants also appear to have different proclivities for raiding. While some like Ivy are “cropaholics”, others will only raid occasionally or not at all. Discovering why some elephants crop raid and others do not is one of the questions the Mara Elephant Project Research Department is asking. Collecting long-term data on these behaviors will help inform how MEP, KWS and other organizations can respond to conflict in both the short term with mitigations, and the long-term with landscape planning.

The data show that Mara elephants fall into three categories: ‘cropaholics’ (red squares), seasonal/occasional raiders (green triangles), and teetotalers (blue dots).

One of KWS and MEP’s approaches to finding a long-term solution for conflict is the approach of collaring, monitoring and collecting data on an elephant candidate that resides within a larger herd that exhibits frequent crop raiding behavior. Long-term solutions are needed to ensure both elephant and community safety. Collaring two “cropaholic” elephants in key areas will provide data that is used daily to mitigate human-elephant conflict and inform ranger deployment. Using MEP’s EarthRanger tracking platform we can see real-time monitoring algorithms that will detect if this collared elephant becomes immobile, breaches a geo-fence, or starts to move slowly which could indicate an injury or illness. These alerts allow MEP rangers to react at a moment’s notice to prevent and mitigate conflict. In addition, each day coordinates are sent to the nearby ground patrol who will check on the collared elephant and its herd. In the long-term, the movement data these elephants generate will help us better understand the connectivity between different parts of the ecosystem and to define and protect essential corridors.

Collared elephant Ivy is a cropaholic elephant.

We are excited to update everyone on these collaring operations in 2021 and want to thank the Indianapolis Zoo for committing to address both the short-term problem and find a long-term solution to the rise in conflict alongside Mara Elephant Project.