Q1 2022 Research & Tracking Report

A new paper co-authored by Dr. Jake Wall called “Landscape Dynamics (landDX) an open-access spatial-temporal database for the Kenya-Tanzania borderlands” was published in Scientific Data on January 18. Jake attended several workshops in the first quarter, one called Planting the Seed organized by the Royal African Foundation, where he joined a great discussions surrounding wildlife and livestock connectivity between the Mara Reserve and Loita Forest. Out of this meeting the group agreed on a framework to plan and execute this project. In late March, there was a 2-day meeting organized by the Greater Serengeti Conservation Society at Lobo Lodge in the Serengeti, Tanzania. The meeting provided an update of current science and evaluation of threats to the Greater Serengeti ecosystem to policy makers and stakeholders.

The MEP Research Department made progress on the Ecoscope project that now runs all the data analytics at MEP. We have shared some of the notebooks and code with close collaborators with the aim of making it fully open source. We hosted Dr. Holly Dublin for several days to discuss developing a monitoring framework for the Mara conservancies. The 6-month long project will focus on collecting and consolidating ideas about what the key indicators are for measuring the state of the ecosystem.

The Allen Institute for AI (AI2) is supporting an internship program at MEP that is designed to engage top students in STEM related fields to work on applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) and related technologies to solve conservation problems. A student from Canada, Catherine Villeneuve, was selected and paired with two Kenyan students from the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (WRTI) to spend time based at MEP’s HQ in Kenya to gain essential insight and field experience. The Fran Duthie African Elephant Conservation Scholarship was open in March to students pursuing conservation or a related field. The goal of this scholarship is to provide financial support to Kenyan nationals acquiring a technical certificate, undergraduate or postgraduate (Masters or PhD) degree in an area related to conservation and the protection of wildlife. Alongside the financial support, this scholarship will provide practical experience to the scholar during the course of their studies by undertaking an internship with the Mara Elephant Project for at least one month during the scholarship period. We had over 70 applications come in during March and we’ll be selecting the recipient by June 1.

The three MEP research field assistants that are working on mapping fences, roads and landcover ground-truthing points using motorbikes and our Njia app recorded 516.8 km of fences and 86 LCC points in the first quarter.

The long-term monitoring (LTM) team was busy in the first quarter conducting elephant sightings in the field and assisting with elephant treatments alongside Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) veterinarians with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Mara Mobile Vet Unit. In January, there was a baby elephant with a snare wound around his neck, in February there was an elephant with a spear wound near her eye and another baby elephant with a leg injury.

In addition to elephant treatments, the LTM team had some amazing monitoring experiences in the first quarter. In February, a monitored individual had just given birth, and elephants were enjoying the rain in the Mara.

We added three new collared elephants to our monitoring program alongside KWS and WRTI, and re-collared two key monitored elephants.

The community in Engata Entarit in Naroosora have been growing crops on the banks of a tributary flowing into the Ewaso Ngiro River. This area is a fertile plateau that sits between the Loita Plains and the Rift Valley. The placement of the area between the Rift Valley Ecosystem and the Greater Mara Ecosystem means it is potentially a corridor for elephants connecting the two ecosystems. Unfortunately, these fields of crops in between are very appetizing for elephants passing through, which has increased conflict in the area. In November 2021, tensions were on the rise in this area when a young man died as a result of wounds sustained from an elephant. In response, KWS, WRTI and MEP moved swiftly and collared a female elephant named Indy, sponsored by the Indianapolis Zoological Society, that was in a herd of over 60 elephants. Since collaring Indy, KWS, WRTI and MEP have been able to track the herd’s movements and they moved out of the area to the border of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. On January 16, a report came into our rangers that a herd of eight elephants that included one rouge elephant was killing livestock in the community. The MEP ranger unit responded and on January 27 alongside CEO Marc Goss in the leased helicopter, and KWS Vet Dr. Titus Kaitho, they darted the aggressive female elephant and collared her to allow for KWS, WRTI and MEP to respond immediately if she enters community land again; her name is Natasha. We will also use her tracked movements to hopefully show connectivity between the Mara and Shompole/Magadi ecosystems or if there has been a loss of connectivity due to an increase in farms, human settlements and fences.

In early January, we also teamed up to collar Wilson, a bull elephant in the Mai Mahiu escarpment, named after Conservation Officer Wilson Sairowua. Shortly after his collaring, he streaked down the escarpment and crossed roads into the southern slopes of Mt. Suswa depicting a range almost similar to that of collared elephant Hannibal.

On February 22, KWS, WRTI and MEP collared a bull elephant in Nakuru, who was named Lolotoo, meaning “The Traveller”. This large bull elephant located outside of the Mau Forest, near another collared elephant Ritan in the Sachanwan Forest and will provide KWS, WRTI and MEP important movement data to illustrate historical range and connectivity between ecosystems. The helicopter was extremely helpful during the collaring with our partner KWS Vet Dr. Limo.

In terms of re-collaring, two well-known MEP collared elephants received new collars in the first quarter, Ivy and Fred. Collared elephant Ivy is a very important elephant that we monitor. Originally collared in 2011, she is not only one of our longest tracked elephants, but she also provides critical movement data and conflict prevention data. Ivy is what Jake calls a “cropaholic” meaning she is addicted to crop raiding and has gotten very clever in her crop raiding behaviors. She and her herd are so quiet that often at night, MEP rangers can’t hear them until they see them. They have learned the best places to stay safe and hidden during the day, that are conveniently bordering the farms filled with ripe crops that they raid in the dead of night. Her movement data has helped MEP create many geo-fences around farmer’s property that alert our rangers when she’s nearby and help prevent any retaliatory attacks by the communities. Continually tracking her is important for both security and human-elephant conflict monitoring, which is why on January 24, Ivy was re-collared in the Transmara by KWS, WRTI and MEP. KWS Vet Dr. Titus Kaitho alongside MEP’s “Echo” ranger unit, CEO Marc Goss piloting the leased helicopter and Jake successfully re-collared her to continue her monitoring into the future.

Fred was re-collared on February 23 in Mara North Conservancy. Fred is a favorite among staff and the collaring operation was a team effort with KWS Vet Dr. Limo and Marc, Jake, Wilson as well as the LTM team. Originally collared in 2013, Fred at the age of 47 is one of the largest bulls KWS, WRTI and MEP monitors in the Greater Mara Ecosystem. The collaring operations are done under a long-term collaboration between MEP, KWS and WRTI on understanding habitat connectivity, resource allocation and conflict mitigation as well as elephant protection.

Here are some monitoring sightings on MEP collared elephants in the first quarter.

The MEP Experimental Farm had a great beginning of the year with most of the crops ready for harvesting. The month of February was marked with high rainfall both in amount and intesity. Most crops are in a growth stage making the rainfall very valuable for vegetative development. Some crops had great yields while others were predated while fruiting and therefore gave very low, or no yields. The farm continues to gain attention from local communities, camps and visitors alike who are all excited to get involved, give advice and further our mission. Collaboration and networking is key for MEP, and we enjoy learning from each other to further improve our work.

In the first quarter, we began including four other systems of passive protection using larger 10×10 meter plots with pathways of five meters between plots. We are trialing four common protection systems including beehives, a ditch fence, sunflowers and chili crop fence. All plots will have maize crops planted in the center, ringed by the passive fencing. Additionally, four new crops were introduced to the farm, citriodora and tea tree, which are believed to have no predators including livestock, in addition cucumber and eggplant, which so far has no predators from the common animals in our farm (hippos, vervet monkey and birds).