The rapid and global spread of the COVID-19 virus has brought with it challenging future implications for conservation, particularly elephant conservation in Kenya. We are deeply concerned about the pending socio-economic downturn that has been predicted and what that means for the communities we work so closely with to protect Kenya’s iconic elephants and the Mara ecosystem. At MEP, we’ve taken the proper steps to ensure our rangers and headquarter-based staff are all safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. We have implemented strict new protocols to ensure that MEP is an example of an organization taking the appropriate measures to deal with the virus. You can read our full statement here and learn more about what we’re doing to protect ourselves, wildlife and the community at this time.
Security in the Mara is an increasing concern and the Narok County Government has taken steps to secure the National Reserve. However, there continues to be a huge economic strain on the whole county which will effect security. At MEP we are keeping our intelligence teams and patrol teams busy by keeping an eye out for any potential outbreaks of elephant and bushmeat poaching. Already we have noticed an increase in the logging and habitat destruction especially in the areas of Naroosora near Loita and the Mau Forest. MEP is staying true to our mission and we are stepping-up to meet the new challenges as they arise. Pictured left: 300 cedar posts recovered by the MEP Loita ranger team on January 7.
In January, the MEP intelligence team led two operations resulting in the recovery of a total of 81 kg of elephant ivory and the arrest of four suspects. The ranger report details these operations.
The arrest on January 23 of a Ugandan with wildlife bones and 42 kg of ivory.
The Karen Blixen Camp Trust helicopter has been vital to our organization during this unprecedented time. The 5Y-MEP helicopter has allowed MEP to address the increased security needs of the Mara’s wildlife, communities and habitat all while maintaining the COVID isolation requirements implemented by the Kenyan Ministry of Health. (pictured left: MEP CEO Marc Goss wearing a MEP buff as protective gear while flying in March.) Now, more than ever, responding quickly and effectively to human-elephant conflict incidents is crucial to ensuring the community’s crops are protected to feed their families. The 5Y-MEP helicopter in Q1 supported mitigation efforts when rangers were unable to safely intervene.
On an aerial monitoring flight of collared elephant Vasco in Baringo County we discovered wanton destruction of the Marmanet Forest leading us to send the Mau SWT team to intercept loggers here and build a relationship with the Bik aBelek, or ‘elephant people’ in Tugen, volunteer team there. MEP also partnered with Seedballs Kenya to aerially drop seed balls in some of the worst hit locations by charcoal makers in the Rift Valley. The helicopter was helpful to partners in Q1 with wildlife transports that included taking a poisoned vulture for treatment (pictured right) and two baby elephants to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage for care. It also lent aerial support to the KWS vet during the treatment of an injured lion.
Heavy rains persist in the Mara throughout the first quarter and although the wildlife is very happy, many roads have been closed and bridges across the Mara River were impassable. The helicopter was a great help with logistics in the first quarter by providing support to our ranger teams, moving stranded tourists, attending key meetings, and patrolling some of the wettest areas by air. It was also used to shuttle supplies to a Narok County Government ranger post after high levels of rain left them stranded in the field, and for a search and rescue mission of a missing woman.
Keeping the MEP helicopter flying during COVID is directly protecting communities and wildlife in the Mara during this time of great stress. In the first quarter of 2020 alone, MEP has flown the helicopter 106 hours, more hours than any other quarter. To put that into perspective, MEP flew a total of 192 hours in the last seven months of 2019. The flying time and needs of the community and wildlife in the Mara will only increase as COVID persists. Your support of helicopter flying time for Mara Elephant Project is crucial to ensuring we continue to have an impact.
We also provided aerial reconnaissance support to Kenya Wildlife Service in the Shimba/Mwaluganje ecosystem where signs of recent elephant poaching were identified and a number of illegal logging and charcoal making sites were located inside the conservation areas. The Shimba elephants were badly affected by poaching in the last decade and little is known about their current distribution and range. This area also experiences a large amount of human-elephant conflict where farming borders the conservation area. In response, to better understand elephant movement, MEP and KWS deployed two new elephant collars onto one female and one male, Gina and Dicki, supported by generous MEP donors. These two collars will help give us an idea as to where these elephants are travelling and how they are using the ecosystem. This first phase was a success and the next steps include raising funds to roll out the MEP method in this area.
In January, MEP increased our boots on the ground presence with the deployment of the second Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Mau De-Snaring Unit and the Lori Price Loita team. Both these extensive forest areas are victim of a number of illegal activities including poaching and habitat destruction. The new teams in Loita and Mau enable us to cover more area and increase protection of all wildlife and habitats. A passing out parade was held to introduce the communities to the 14 new rangers and was well attended by Police, Administration, Forestry, the cadet’s families, and over 500 community members.
MEP has also been supporting the process of adjudicating the Loita Forest and attended two meetings with agency stakeholders and then community committee members. This transparent process is extremely important to get right to ensure that the forest is protected, the community is empowered with the tools to protect their forest, and that there is no land grabbing. The Loita community is one of the best examples of a properly managed community forest and satellite imagery supports this claim by indicating minimal forest cover loss in the last 20 years. As the adjudication process continues and individuals are given parcels of land surrounding the forest, we all must ensure that the forest remains intact. We will be working closely with the government and the community to ensure this process happens transparently and appropriately.
Finally, on the February 22, MEP core staff attended the Celebration of Life for MEP Founding Member Richard Roberts. Around 500 people attended the event and the ceremony was extremely touching. MEP’s Chairman Colin Church gave a moving and informative speech about how Richard started MEP and how far it has come since its 2011 inception. Many people came up to me and said they had no idea how much Richard did for MEP and the impact MEP has had in the Mara. Each speech from family members and close friends captured a glimpse of the amazing man Richard was; truly a larger than life person. Our hearts are with his family during this difficult time and we can only say that time heals all wounds. You are hugely missed by your MEP family and you will always live on through us and MEP.