Aerial Surveillance Report | August 2023

Published on the 11th of October, 2023

For the Aerial Unit, August was more or less a continuation of July. However, in comparison to last year, it was definitely a quieter month. Veterinary treatments and human-elephant conflict were the main activities that kept the team occupied.

The Aerial Unit attended to a total of six veterinary callouts over the course of August. In Kimana, near Amboseli National Park, a female elephant was reported with a spear wound to her left rump. She was darted from an SWT helicopter and attended to by the SWT/KWS Amboseli Mobile Vet Unit. Thanks to timely intervention, she was given a good prognosis for recovery. Another report came in from Kuku Ranch of an adult male giraffe with a spear lodged in the back of its knee. Thankfully, once darted by helicopter, the vet was able to remove the spear and perform a successful treatment, giving the impressive bull an excellent prognosis. He was soon reunited with his herd of eight giraffes.

Another successful treatment was of a bull elephant in the north of Tsavo East National Park with a suspected arrow or fighting injury. The bull was located and darted by helicopter before being treated and given an excellent prognosis. Another callout for a bull elephant near Tsavo River resulted in no treatment: After observing the bull at close quarters, teams found that the wound, which had initially been sighted during a fixed-wing aerial patrol, was healing on its own. The bull is expected to make a full recovery without intervention.

Unfortunately, not all callouts have a happy ending. A female elephant with a suspected arrow wound, seen the previous day by a motorist, was searched for extensively but never located. Another young bull (8 years old) was found alone in Rhino Valley, Tsavo West National Park, with a visibly injured leg. Sadly, after being darted and inspected by the vet, it was determined that he suffered from a broken leg and the difficult decision was made to euthanise him.

With regards to human-elephant conflict, a total of six cases were attended to, with mostly positive results. The main exception unfolded in the Rombo area, bordering Tsavo West National Park. A report came in that an elephant had killed one person and injured another. The community was incensed, and a large crowd of men had gathered with spears to exact revenge. By the time the helicopter arrived, elephants had already been killed and around 100 men were chasing the remaining four elephants in an attempt to kill them as well.

The helicopter attempted to drive the elephants back into a protected area and away from danger. However, despite initial success, the men soon caught up and resumed their spearing. They then turned on the helicopter and began throwing spears and rocks it. At this point, it became obvious that for the team’s safety it was necessary to withdraw. Tragically, the crowd succeeded in blocking the elephants’ retreat and killed a third.

In August, the Aerial Unit attended to just one orphan rescue. A small elephant calf was found abandoned in Meru National Park in the north. Teams on the ground had tried in vain to reunite the calf with nearby herds, so SWT was requested to rescue it. The calf was collected in the Trust’s Cessna Caravan and flown to Kaluku HQ for further care. Two (very old) elephant carcasses were sighted in August. In both cases, the tusks were intact, indicating natural deaths. Tusks were collected by SWT ground teams and handed over to KWS for safekeeping.

Very little evidence of poaching was observed in August. Two dual purpose camps were sighted during aerial patrols, both outside of National Parks. For all intents and purposes, they were charcoal camps, but it is suspected (and in one case, confirmed) that poaching activity was also occurring. The team also sighted recent activity of illegal mining and illegal logging. In one case, the helicopter dropped ground teams on the Yatta Plateau, a relatively short distance from observed logging activity, where they were able to pick up two-day-old spoor.

While charcoal activity remains rare inside the Parks, there is significant charcoaling occurring outside the Parks on bordering ranches. Aerial patrols in these areas focused heavily on this issue. Galana Ranch, in particular, is plagued by large-scale commercial charcoal burning, which proves difficult to tackle. As many as 1,000 people are estimated to be involved in the trade on Galana Ranch. As alluded to in previous reports, the problem on Galana is not restricted to charcoal and poaching, but extends to large-scale, illegal settlement. This has been occurring for the last two decades, but has accelerated in recent years.

There is little to report with regard to illegal livestock incursions, except to say that the situation is generally improving. Livestock numbers are considerably lower now, compared to the same time in the last several years. This is due to many factors, including sustained pressure from KWS, regular aerial patrols in support of KWS, as well as recent droughts, which have reduced livestock numbers bordering the Park and elsewhere.

The fire season has so far been much less dramatic than in recent years. In fact, as of August, only one fire has been fought in the Chyulu Hills — despite it being what is typically the second month of the fire season. Notably, it appears that this fire was actually started accidentally by illegal miraa harvesters. Smoke was first sighted by an SWT fixed wing, emanating from a small patch of forest in the hills. Thanks to a quick response, the fire was immediately extinguished by ground teams and an additional three Bambi bucket drops by the SWT helicopter, which also assisted in deploying two teams to the scene (SWT and Big Life).

Highlights in August included the sighting of a rhino mother and calf during a helicopter patrol. The pair had not been seen in the previous full moon census in Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary. Happily, the Aerial Unit is also reporting more frequent wild dog sightings, following a slight dip in the Tsavo population after a rash of illnesses last year.

SWT Aerial Unit

A cornerstone of our conservation work, our Aerial Unit monitors for illegal activity from the skies and provides a vital, rapid response to all manner of field operations.
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