Expanded Elephant Research Program

Mara Elephant Project is always working on expanding our database through combining various sets of data we seek to provide a range of indicators for informing and implementing future spatial ecosystem plans that protect the Mara’s wildlife. Dr. Jake Wall joined Mara Elephant Project as the director of research and conservation on a full-time basis in January 2019. Dr. Wall is an architect of EarthRanger, a system to track elephants in real-time to help protect them against ivory poaching and to study their movement patterns and conservation in the context of the rapid expansion of the human-footprint across Africa. Jake was previously the Geospatial Scientific Advisor to Save the Elephants and works with Vulcan to incorporate other real-time data such as vehicle tracking into the tracking system. 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. As a conservation organization the main focus has been boots on the ground, operational support of the elephants and communities in the Mara. The next step for our organization is to focus on long-term research to better support our operational orders.

The results of the research 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. 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 Report 2011-2018 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.

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 results of analyzed data will be used to develop reports, position papers and policy and practice recommendations. All outputs will be shared with MEP’s target audiences, key partners, the conservancies, and Narok County Government. The sharing of data, findings, reports and position papers and recommendations is aimed at raising awareness, facilitating more immediate input and action, informing and influencing policy and practice and developing closer working relationships with key partners.

Collar Data

The data collected from 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 48 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.

MIKE/PIKE Data:

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.

HEC Data:

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 is recorded by MEP human-elephant conflict (HEC)  teams and shared with key partners. HEC is not exclusive to farmers and MEP HEC teams will record the nature of each conflict in as much details as practical.

KWS and the County 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.

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. The employment of two Maasai women would be critical to ensuring the monitoring and data collection continues to grow for MEP in 2019 in the Mara. This long-term monitoring team would report directly to Jake and would initially focus on the continued monitoring of MEP’s collared elephants and the identification of other elephants in the greater population.