On April 28, 2017 I got a call from the Mara Conservancy Administrator David Aruasa reporting that two elephants were caught in farms on the Kenya/Tanzania border outside of the Mara Triangle portion of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. David reported that the ranger team from the Ngerare post tried to get the elephants out of the farms but they were met with a large number of frustrated community members after the elephants had moved into Tanzania farms.
Tanzanian farmland on the border of the Serengeti.
I called the Serengeti Lamai area warden, Joseph France, who contacted the local police to keep an eye on the elephants until his Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) ranger team arrived from the Serengeti. Joseph called back to report that one elephant had been badly injured and the other was still being pursued by locals in the community with arrows and spears. Joseph’s team was still in transit and had not yet reached the site of the human-elephant conflict (HEC) so he asked if I would fly the Karen Blixen Camp Ree Park Safari helicopter there to move the elephants out of farms and stop the farmers from injuring them.
Me piloting the helicopter and spotting the injured elephant near a farm.
I arrived at the site at 5 p.m. and, after meeting up with the TANAPA rangers in Nyanungu Village, was escorted by the village chief to the location of the elephants. When coming up to the site the first thing we saw was a gathering of around 300 villagers who were standing on high ground next to the escarpment directing us to a dense patch of thicket. Given this general location I was able to spot the injured elephant after circling only once in the helicopter. He was a medium-sized bull with short tusks and his body had a number of arrow wounds as well as a spear hanging from his left side behind his ribs.
The helicopter MEP uses is not only essential for quick responses to escalating HEC situations like this, but many villagers are happy to see MEP there helping protect their farms. In this situation, lucky for us, the helicopter provided a nice distraction from the injured elephant that was surrounded on three sides by farms and on the fourth side by around 300 people.
The local villagers watching the helicopter respond to this HEC incident.
I noticed a cattle track going down the 1,000-foot escarpment heading towards the park, which would be a perfect place to push the injured elephant to safety. Unfortunately, cattle herds were heading back to the village after a day of grazing in the park and therefore the path wasn’t a viable option for moving this bull. This path, used by the villagers for illegal cattle grazing in the park, was also the path elephants were using to enter the farms from the park at night.
Pushing the elephant along the path I found into safety.
After hitting a dead end, I landed in an open patch where I could see the injured bull and ask the locals about the second elephant. The village chief explained that the other elephant had been killed and that TANAPA rangers were removing its tusks. This news meant that I really needed to get the remaining injured bull to safety. I took off in the helicopter to try again and was able to move him to the path down the escarpment toward the park. He was moving down the path just fine when he got a whiff of some of the recent human and livestock activity and stopped. I maneuvered the helicopter right down beside him and he still held his ground. Luckily, the community was some distance away so I landed again between the elephant and the community to provide some protection.
The elephant and I facing off as I tried to guide him to safety.
Since moving the elephant was not an option at this point, with weather moving in and waning daylight, I needed to provide a distraction for the community so the elephant could move at his own pace down the path and safely into the park. So, I landed the helicopter in the middle of the 300 plus villagers, and let them take pictures with it and answered their questions about it. This also gave me a good opportunity to apologize for the loss of their farms and let them know that MEP was doing it all it could to mitigate this human-elephant conflict.
Showing the villagers the helicopter provided the perfect distraction.
I gave the elephant as much time as I could to get to safety on his own and headed home at dusk. The TANAPA team returned after I left and reported that after darkness he moved back down the escarpment and into safety in the Serengeti National Park.
The Karen Blixen Camp Ree Park Safari helicopter is not only an effective tool for moving crop raiding elephants out of farms, but it also provides a good distraction for the community and allows them to see physical evidence that MEP and other organizations in the area are doing all they can to ensure both their safety and the safety of the elephants.
I’m happy to report that three days after this incident the Mara Conservancy CEO and myself were in the helicopter checking in on the same area and we spotted the injured bull elephant. The spear was no longer in his side and an abscess was forming to heal the wounded area naturally.
In 2017, HEC is the most prevalent issue MEP responds to regularly and whether it is in Kenya or for our new partners in Tanzania, MEP will always be the first to rapidly respond to any elephant or human in need.