MEP is on the cutting edge of deploying innovative techniques and technologies for anti-poaching and human-elephant conflict mitigation.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a cheap and effective technology to use in MEP’s human-elephant conflict toolkit. These UAVs are portable and easy for rangers to use in the field and are the first tactic rangers use to move elephants out of unwanted areas before the helicopter is called in. In the middle of February 2017, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) has approved the commercial use of UAVs lifting a two-year ban.
MEP has been developing the UAV project since September 2012 when CEO Marc Goss bought a simple UAV to test in the Mara. The UAV technology was improving fast and field use became a reality. MEP started a training program for rangers to safely mitigate human-elephant conflict using UAVs during the day and night. The curriculum was designed so that rangers could pick up the necessary skills to fly safely and effectively. MEP has successfully conducted trainings in Tanzania for the Tanzania wildlife authorities. Additionally, MEP has prepared a “UAV Flying Manual” that has allowed us to take the knowledge we have using drones to combat human-elephant conflict and share it with other organizations in Africa.
Thanks to the generosity of Karen Blixen Camp and Ree Park Safari, Mara Elephant Project operates the only helicopter in the Mara. Since 2015 MEP has had use of the helicopter and been able to expand rapid response to poaching, injured wildlife, and conflict by 4,000 km2.
The helicopter is an essential tool in our human-elephant conflict toolkit and works well in coordination with flash bangs. Additionally, it supports our collaring and monitoring efforts by making the collaring of at-risk elephants safer for both the elephant and support team. We are also able to complete monthly monitoring flights that ensure the elephant’s safety and well-being as well as collects important data like herd size and health. Though MEP rangers are the backbone of our organization, the helicopter provides them with aerial support in difficult HEC mitigate situations. We are able to locate crop-raiding elephants faster and provide a much-needed distraction from the elephant while our boots on the ground guide them to safety.
In addition to all of these benefits that directly help MEP, the helicopter has helped many other organizations in the Mara, because it’s the only one in use specifically for conservation. MEP’s access to the helicopter has allowed us to create more partnerships within the Mara. We’ve increased our partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust mobile vet unit to respond to injured animals over a much larger area. Another great benefit for the Mara is that MEP is able to quickly and effectively help anyone injured during a human-wildlife conflict situation and get them to treatment as soon as possible. In a smaller capacity, we are also helping investigate and treat other injured or deceased animals in the Mara such as giraffes and buffalo.
The helicopter costs approximately $400 an hour to run which covers fuel, insurance and maintenance. MEP flies an average of 26 hours per month costing us $10,400 for conservation. Although this seems like a lot, there are very few substitutes for the helicopter. The helicopter is maintained by the KWS Airwing in Nairobi who have been sent for training at the Robinson factory in California.
Chili fences are built using recycled motor oil and chili powder that recycled fabric is then dipped in and hung on a fence made of sisal rope and posts that have been erected in the ground. The elephant’s sensitive sense of smell finds the chili fence a strong deterrent from crop raiding.
A chili fence is a vital tool in the MEP human-elephant conflict toolkit, but simply erecting one is not enough. MEP rangers who were previously trained on how to erect chili fences by Tanzanian farmers in 2015 are also tasked with training the community on how to maintain the fence and create more in the areas necessary. The purpose of the training is to transfer this knowledge to the local community and scale the chili fence-building project on an annual basis. Since 2015, MEP has erected a total of 31 kilometers of chili fences in the areas of Transmara and Munyas.
Since 2012, MEP has collared 23 flagship elephants across the rangeland. When collaring elephants, MEP focuses on candidates that will gather useful spatial data such as elephants in border areas, areas of conflict or areas outside conservancies or national reserves, candidates that represent elephants which crop raid, identified across the dispersal area, and candidates that represent large herds.
All 23 collared elephants are monitored daily via Google Earth remotely through the collars but also by air with the helicopter, and with the ranger teams on the ground. Our implemented monitoring system provides data that is being used daily to mitigate human-elephant conflict, inform ranger deployment and anti-poaching work, and promote transboundary cooperation within the wider ecosystem. Collar data is the single best indicator for identifying elephant density hotspots, defining corridors, and illustrating elephant movements to target audiences.
MEP generates monthly tracking reports, constructs density and movement maps, with partner Save the Elephants, and populates a shared geofence database. To date, this data has been used to deploy rapid response units, develop maps illustrating the density and movement of elephants, which are used internally to inform MEP’s area of operations and externally as part of the quantifiable data for the Narok County Spatial Plan. This information is used to anticipate possible human-elephant conflict incidents as 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.
Through the aerial monitoring program, we have identified that the 23 collared elephants represent between 400 and 600 elephants, as counted each month.
Community Engagement & Education
MEP has developed a strategic partnership with the Maa Trust who works with communities living on the borders of wildlife conservancies in the Mara. The Maa Trust supports a number of community development projects including primary school bursaries, water harvesting for schools, community water points, school infrastructure development, supplying textbooks, wildlife education projects, and health projects. A core message of the Maa Trust “Esiaai Tenkaraki Ing’uesi” – “Work because of the wildlife” meaning that for all projects they engage in, it is clearly communicated that the project is happening because of the wildlife. The Maa Trust has developed a beading project and honey harvesting project which engages 500 women surrounding the Olare Orok Conservancy earning additional income for women who are not often given income generating activities in a male dominated culture.
“WE STARTED AS PRIMARILY ANTI-POACHING BUT WE’RE NOW MOVING INTO DEVELOPING COMMUNITIES. WHY? BECAUSE ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY ARE STAKEHOLDERS IN PROTECTING ELEPHANTS AND MARA ELEPHANT PROJECT IS TRYING TO GIVE THEM AN AVENUE TO PLAY A PART IN ELEPHANT CONSERVATION.” Marc Goss, CEO, Mara Elephant Project
Additionally, MEP works in the Rekero, Ol Donyo Erinka and Ole Moncho areas, which have been some of the worst poaching hotspots and continue to be HEC hotspots. In these areas are three primary schools: Ole Moncho Primary School, Rekero Primary School, and Ngoswani Primary School with a total of 1,117 children. All three schools share some basic needs including potable water, security, energy for cooking, lighting, classroom space, sanitation facilities, classroom furniture and textbooks for all the children.
As MEP addresses the poaching activities and HEC incidents in these areas, we plan to influence the community’s attitude toward wildlife by developing projects which we tie directly to harmoniously living with wildlife and the benefits that accrue to the local community as a result of the wildlife and associated tourism.
Elephant Research Database Expansion
Mara Elephant Project is always working on expanding our database and by 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. MEP has a Scientific Advisory Board comprised of recognized and respected scientists which runs parallel to the main board of trustees. The Scientific Advisory Board is responsible for ensuring the overall quality for collection of data and generating peer reviewed articles and publications. Additionally, MEP has key scientific partners: Save the Elephants, Kenya Wildlife Service, Maasai Mara University, and Elephant Voices.
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.
The collar data collected from MEP’s 23 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 the Mara-Domain Awareness System (DAS. 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 Mara-DAS system was also recently expanded to include Spydertracks data from the MEP 5Y-REE helicopter and satellite trackers on two of 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 Mara-DAS 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 nearly 700,000 recorded GPS positions that have been collected from 40 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 (STE & MEP Science Board), will help to answer questions about the why, where and when of Mara elephant spatial behavior.
The overall goal of Monitoring of Illegally Killed Elephants (MIKE) 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.
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 is recorded by MEP 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.
Geofences are built around settlements including village centers and farming areas. MEP will continue to collect spatial settlement data when populating the geofence 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.