April was again a very wet month here in the Mara and it was said locally that the Mara River is as high as at any time in recent memory. The main roads and three of the main bridges crossing the Mara River were impassable for a number of days effectively cutting off the Transmara from the Narok side of the county. (pictured left: Bridges running over the river and most of the Mara was flooded in April. Photo Credit: Brian Heath)
Unfortunately, this flooding directly affected camps alongside the river that were already experiencing difficulties due to the complete loss of tourism as a result of COVID-19. Camps and lodges along the river have been hit hard and even though many had a skeleton staff on hand, the water levels rose so quickly, they needed immediate evacuation. MEP was called in to rescue two camp staff members from Ngerende in the Wild with the helicopter and transport them to safety. It’s not just people that are stranded, elephants too. MEP’s tracked elephant ‘Fred’ was caught on the western side of the river as it rose and had to spend several weeks waiting for the water levels to subside before crossing back. We expect to get more rain in May, which is the last thing everyone in the Mara needs right now and MEP is doing everything we can to be helpful to the during this difficult time.
A MEP ranger demonstrating how high water levels were while on patrol.
On that note, MEP is continuing our strict COIVID-19 protocols and they are starting to become the new normal. MEP rangers stationed in the field are making sure to practice proper hand washing technique despite their lack of access to running water. Four of our ranger stations are using a tippy tap and MEP has also built tippy taps for rangers at Mara North Conservancy and Lemek Conservancy headquarters. Additionally, we felt it was important to ensure the local community had access, so we built a tippy tap in the community area of Manyatta and at the entrance to Mara Elephant Project headquarters.
We also teamed up with The Maa Trust this month to distribute food parcels to 637 families donated by the Sidekick Foundation. The women who made high quality beaded items and sold honey to lodges lost their livelihoods overnight due to the loss of tourism. Several national newspapers including The Insider and Talk Africa covered the distribution and The Maa Trust also wrote a blog thanking MEP for our help. This project was funded by our main supporter the Sidekick Foundation and has made a huge difference to these families.
MEP sent staff and a vehicle to help The Maa Trust with distribution of food packages.
All indications are that the situation is going to get worse in the Mara and MEP will be looking for ways to improve food security in the rural communities we work in. To this end, there were 22 incidents of human-elephant conflict in April that MEP rangers responded to help secure community’s fences and crops. We experienced persistent conflict in the Mararienta center this month where a group of stubborn bulls go right into the center to feed on the fruits of Warburgia Ugadensis (Elephant Pepper) trees. We have been pushing these elephants out of the center on nearly a daily basis.
MEP rangers responding to conflict in April as crops ripened.
There were increased requests from the community in the Naroosora area of Loita to help with mitigation efforts, so MEP deployed a ranger team to prevent crop raiding. The rangers have been chasing elephants out of these farms at night and have also been responding to illegal logging and assisting local administration to enforce curfew rules. On the 11th of April, we conducted an aerial patrol flight in the Loita Hills and Loita Forest. In the Loita Forest we found several Podocarpus trees felled for timber production and relayed the coordinates to the ground teams for follow-up. We then proceeded to the Loita Hills southwest of Naroosora Center where several large cedar logging operations were spotted. This information was sent to the MEP human-elephant conflict team based in the area, which quickly mobilized with the police and arrested one suspect and destroyed all of the illegal posts. In total the Loita team arrested three people for illegal logging, two people with a power saw that had been cutting down cedar posts, confiscated 1,244 cedar posts and 1,500 illegal logs.
Elephants in the Nyakweri Forest including MEP collared elephant Fitz have been frequently crop raiding and the community have been threatening to attack the herd. In response to this MEP and KWS sent a 4th rapid response team to this area to increase security and respond to conflict. Due to increased poaching threats in the Mosiro area there is an immediate need for better ranger coverage.
The vegetation greenness index (NDVI) measured in the range of the elephants in the Mau Forest was outside the 95th percentile range of values measured historically and was generally much higher than the average across all regions that elephants are ranging. (pictured left: A normal stream in the Mau Forest was a fast-moving river as photographed by rangers in the field.) Which means, in the Mau our Sheldrick Wildlife Trust team was majorly affected by the flooding and could not cross many of the rivers which are normally streams. Despite this, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Mau De-Snaring units removed one snare and arrested four suspects for transporting charcoal and confiscated two sacks of charcoal and four podo tree posts. They also have been engaging with Kenya Forest Service to plant trees in the Emitik area.
On the 4th, MEP conducted an aerial patrol of the Mau Forest where we recorded several significant landslides (pictured right) on steep slopes of the recently reclaimed area. In May, we plan to distribute 800 kg of dombeya and cedar seedballs on land slides in the Mau and logged areas in the Loita Hills. A generous donor supported the purchase of the seedballs from Seedballs Kenya worth $5,000. Including the 800 kgs of seedballs donated, we had had two more donations totaling 75 kg of seed balls from Seedballs Kenya to distribute. Thank you to Lisa Perez, Margaret and Katrina for your support of this partnership to regreen the Mara.
A big focus for the MEP research department during the month of April was to work with other research and conservation partners in the Mara to restructure the ‘One Mara Research Hub’ with which MEP has helped since its inception in early 2019. The inspiration for the Hub is to be a mechanism to facilitate collaboration and communication amongst researchers and conservationists in the Mara. We are working on growing the network of people involved in the hub, and from the pool of human and scientific resources, form dedicated working groups to tackle large, landscape level conservation issues. One such working group was established last November to submit wildlife-specific inputs to the Narok County spatial plan. MEP, working together with Smithsonian, KWS, WWF, KWT and other partners, has been able to advise on the locations of elephant corridors, high density core areas and less frequently-used elephant dispersal areas in the hope that these data will inform land-use planning by Narok County Government in the years to come.
Two tour operators highlighted MEP in April. Elevate Destinations mentioned MEP in a blog and The Explorations Company released their annual charity guide, which features two pages on MEP. Additionally, travel journalist, Mary Holland visited MEP in 2019 and wrote two articles mentioning us as an organization to support; one in CN Traveler and one published on Bloomberg. Finally, photographer Klaus Tiedge who passed away in 2019, produced a documentary about his final trip to the Mara in 2018 that featured Mara Elephant Project.
In terms of donor support, despite the economic downturn, we still had amazing loyal supporters reaching out to Mara Elephant Project to support our work. We must start with a donation of $78,000 from the estate of Mary and Maurice Woulfe. Mary was passionate about conservation and unfortunately passed away in early 2020. She wanted her legacy to focus on the protection of elephants and MEP is honored to be able to fulfill that for her through this donation. We also received a donation from Lori Price of $52,000 to support the new Loita ranger team. At the recommendation of John Dillow, long-time friend and supporter of MEP, we received a grant of $7,500 from the J E Fehsenfeld Family Foundation to support our core operations. Elephant Cooperation supported MEP with a donation of $2,400 that went directly to increase the flying time for the helicopter during the COVID-19 crisis. We also received 57 Individual donations via PayPal totaling $11,046. Our thanks to Creatura Wildlife Projects, Angela Crisler, Dustin DiMisa and everyone else for your generous support. We also raised $153.51 on Facebook. Thank you to Renes for your birthday fundraising supporting MEP. The LEAD Ranger Program donated medical kits to MEP rangers.
MEP ranger Caren photographed with the donation of supplies from LEAD.
We also had many great entries in the Greatest Maasai Mara photo competition that benefitted MEP. Thank you to David Roberts, Anna Maria Gremmo, Tracy Miller, Thorsten Hanewald, Julie Lovens, Roisin Allen, Romit Shah, Andrew Campbell, Ole Ekelund and Fabrice Broche for supporting us!
An April entry from Roisin Allen in the GMM photo competition.