Mara Elephant Project’s Research Department led by Dr. Jake Wall has developed an applied research agenda aimed at enhancing the protection of elephants and the habitat upon which they and other wildlife depend. As a conservation organization the main focus has been boots on the ground, operational support of the elephants and communities in the Mara. In the short to medium term, the data collected will continue to be analyzed to develop early warning systems to better inform MEP’s ground security operations. More specifically, computer algorithms which use all the data sets will be developed to predict HEC, poaching and elephant movements. The next step for our organization is to focus on long-term research to better support our operational orders. Research generated by MEP will be used to develop reports and position papers to influence and guide management of the ecosystem. All outputs will be shared with MEP’s target audiences and key partners aimed at raising awareness, facilitating more immediate input and action, informing and influencing policy and practice and developing closer working relationships with key partners.
The data collected from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and MEP’s collared elephants provides the evidence base used to inform and influence policy making surrounding ecological corridors and has helped define the northern and western extent of the ecosystem using collar, settlement and conflict data. 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 MEP’s EarthRanger system. 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 MEP EarthRanger system was also recently expanded to include Spydertracks data from the MEP 5Y-MEP helicopter and satellite trackers on MEP’s vehicles. Helicopter movement data can now be analyzed to quantify aerial patrol effort and patrol distribution to better understand the effect of the MEP helicopter as a tool in human-elephant conflict mitigation. We hope to further integrate movement data from both individually tracked patrol teams and all our patrol vehicles for similar purposes.
The MEP 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. MEP is also currently working on scientifically analyzing the over 1 million recorded GPS positions that have been collected from over 50 elephants tracked in the Maasai Mara since December 2011. This data is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the movements of the elephants within the greater Mara ecosystem and establish a baseline of movement patterns on which we can also monitor changes over time. 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.
The overall goal of collecting the Monitoring of Illegally Killed Elephants (MIKE) data is to provide information needed to make appropriate management and enforcement decisions and to build institutional capacity for the long-term management of elephant populations. More specifically, the goals of MIKE are to: measure levels and trends in the illegal killing of elephants; determine changes in these trends over time; and, determine the factors causing or associated with such changes. This data can be used to try and assess in particular to what extent observed trends are a result of any decisions taken by local and national authorities. MIKE data, basically a body count of elephants each year from a region, is recorded by using comprehensive forms to understand the reason for an elephant’s death. The form categorizes natural, management, illegal, or unknown causes of death. When the cause is illegal, the form goes into more detail as to the means of death and the reason for the illegal killing: Conflict or for ivory. In some cases, the cause of death is unknown. Sometimes elephants are heavily scavenged, and it is almost impossible to identify the cause of death.
MEP will continue to collect MIKE data as accurately as possible. When MIKE data is collected it is then “harmonized” with other collecting partners and the Kenya Wildlife Service so as to ensure consistency, comparability and confidence in the data. MEP will continue the MIKE program and play an active role in MIKE harmonization exercises led by KWS every quarter. Key data sets would include: 1.) population census using a MEP fixed-wing, and by ground collection by a MEP research assistant in a research vehicle, 2.) carcass monitoring (MIKE program) by MEP helicopter patrols, by patrols in a fixed-wing aircraft and by MEP ground patrols. MIKE data is then analyzed to give more accurate indicators, specifically the Percentage of Illegally Killed Elephants (PIKE). PIKE is the best single indicator available to illustrate elephant security trends. PIKE levels above 50% of total mortalities shows an unsustainable level of poaching within any given elephant population (Iain Douglas-Hamilton personal communication, 2014). MEP and Save the Elephants regularly harmonize and then analyze MIKE data. The data is then used by MEP and the KWS in the short term to mobilize resources to the worst poaching hotspots. In the long term, MIKE data will help to shape the county and national elephant strategy plans.
When elephants go into crop areas and the MEP team is deployed, different methods of moving elephants out of crops are utilized. These methods and their success rate is recorded by MEP human-elephant conflict (HEC) teams and shared with key partners. MEP has been at forefront of human-elephant conflict mitigation, recording and characterizing conflict mitigation on EarthRanger. Our conflict mitigation work put us in front of the National Human Wildlife Conflict Compensation Task Force, and we continue to participate to brainstorm long-term mitigation strategies. KWS and local governments have developed a compensation program for farmers whose crops or property has been damaged. The compensation forms are cumbersome and KWS does not have the capacity to record all crop damage. MEP will continue to assist in facilitating the form filling process, including taking photographs and transport of the various verifiers. In exchange, MEP plans to have access to the KWS dataset and harmonize this data.
Geo-fences are built around settlements including village centers and farming areas. MEP will continue to collect spatial settlement data when populating the geo-fence database. Elephant Voices, Mara North Conservancy, Maa Trust and Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association also collect settlement data. More in-depth settlement data to include stocking rates, population census and migration will not be collected by MEP. Rather, this will be accessed from the Government of Kenya database. Yale University has constructed 15 weather stations across the ecosystem as part of the Mara River Project and shares the real-time data online. Noting the link between rainfall, crop planning and ripening, MEP will use this data as part of developing the early warning system.