Since 2011, Mara Elephant Project (MEP) has collared 48 flagship elephants across the Mara ecosystem. Collaring, monitoring and collecting data on elephants are key components to ensuring we meet our mission objectives. We maintain a collaring schedule that outlines for our organization a timeline for collaring in any given year. Currently, MEP has 16 collared elephants that we monitor in real-time daily via Google Earth. MEP has been using the real-time location data provided by the collars to monitor the movements of 400-600 elephants (estimated by spot counts during patrol flights) across the Mara, Mau, Loita and Rift Valley ecosystems. Our patrol teams consisting of both MEP and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers rely on this data for daily patrol planning. As a result, security in the areas MEP operates has greatly increased since 2011 and the levels of poaching have dropped dramatically. The collaring, monitoring and data collection on elephants is a key approach for our organization.
When collaring, 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.
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 reacts 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 our 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 Trust helicopter.
While MEP monitors the elephants on Google Earth, we also populate our geo-fence database. Geo-fences 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 and speed maps and populates a shared geo-fence 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. Through the aerial monitoring program we have identified that the MEP collared represent between 400 and 600 elephants, as counted each quarter.
All managers and officers at MEP have now been equipped with iPhones and the Save The Elephants Tracking App for iOS – a specialized and secure platform for visualizing real time elephant movement within the Mara EarthRanger. 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.
The data collected from MEP’s elephant collars is the single best indicator for identifying elephant density hotspots, defining critical habitat and 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 range in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. 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 must continue to provide the evidence underpinning the communications and advocacy efforts of the organization to protect this critical habitat into the future. Not only for elephants, but all wildlife that are represented by this umbrella species.
Dr. Jake Wall joined MEP as the director of research and conservation on a full-time basis in January 2019. MEP’s research goal for 2019 is to significantly invest time and resources in developing its applied research agenda aimed at enhancing the protection of elephants and the habitat upon which they and other wildlife depend. Dr. Wall spent the first part of 2019 refining MEP’s research objectives by scoping the extent of past, current and future elephant research and conservation activities in the Mara and identified those areas where MEP can best focus its efforts. He finished MEP’s Individual Collared Elephant Report2011-2018 that documents in detail the movement patterns of the 48 elephants that MEP has tracked since 2011 up until the end of 2018. The 98-page report contains a biography, photo ID, wet and dry season home-range maps and statistics plus a movement map and statistics for each elephant. It also provides an estimation of the extent to which each elephant has been crop raiding and how they distribute their time across the landscape, both inside and outside of protected areas. The report generation is almost fully automated using the Python coding language and MEP plans to repeat it every year.
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 EarthRanger, 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 EarthRanger 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-MEP 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.
In 2019, MEP would like to increase the amount of demographic data it is collecting on the Mara elephant population. We would like to continue with the work started by Dr. Joyce Poole and extend the Elephant Voices individual ID database by establishing a long-term elephant monitoring program. Individual ID studies can provide critical insight into population structure (e.g., total population numbers, sex ratios and age structure), social behavior, and act as an early warning system for increased levels of poaching or HWC. 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 will help to answer questions about the why, where and when of Mara elephant spatial behavior.