Aerial Surveillance Report | July 2023

Published on the 14th of September, 2023

It was a very busy month for our Aerial Unit, driven by a rise in human-elephant conflict, poaching, livestock incursions, and other illegal activities. Unfortunately, this increase is all-too-common as the dry season begins to bite.

There was an increase in Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) cases in July, both in the common hotspots and also to the south and east of the Parks, where recent coastal rains have created irresistible conditions for elephants, particularly given the drought conditions within the park. Literally hundreds of elephants have concentrated in these areas and have been coming into frequent contact with humans.

Unfortunately, this sometimes ends tragically. There were multiple incidents of people losing their lives to elephants in July. In an attempt to mitigate the situation, the SWT airwing pushed elephants away from heavily settled areas and back towards protected areas adjacent to Tsavo East. Elephants were first located with a fixed wing aircraft and then pushed with the aid of a helicopter. In two instances, more serious measures were taken. One aggressive, rogue bull was darted and translocated to a safer area.

Another bull, that had thwarted multiple attempts to be pushed back into the Park by helicopter was also darted and translocated. These operations involved a lot of moving parts, with fixed wing aircraft transferring vets into place, helicopters to assist in darting the elephants and multiple ground assets to direct activities on the ground and load the elephants onto a crane truck to be moved. In addition to the two translocations, a total of 8 HEC callouts were attended to and in most cases, elephants were successfully pushed back into the Park, or at the very least, pushed several kilometres away from densely populated areas.

Livestock incursions continue to be addressed persistently and methodically. While the problem has far from disappeared, our consistent efforts to detect and monitor livestock incursions, together with KWS’ determination on the ground have made significant progress. There are large parts of both Tsavo East and West now that have markedly less livestock presence than was previously the case.

July was a charcoal free month in the Parks (at least in terms of aerial sightings), however, the situation on Galana and Kulalu Ranches is much different. Industrial-scale charcoal production continues on both ranches, but especially on Galana. Our Aerial Unit has been focusing on creating charcoal free zones, by patrolling intensively in one area at a time deploying ground teams to destroy all charcoal camps and kilns in those areas completely in partnership with ADC and KWS.

Poaching activity continues to be on the rise. Several poacher’s harbours or campfires were detected by the airwing in July. One harbour, spotted during a routine fixed wing patrol, was responded to by the helicopter and the KWS/SWT K9 Unit, as well as two other ground teams. A large bushmeat camp was found and destroyed. Later that day, ground teams in the area found and arrested a charcoal burner in possession of an elephant trunk. Investigations determined that he had actually found the trunk by happenstance, while walking to the river, the trunk having been severed by a wire snare.

Other poaching activity spotted included bicycle tracks some 25 kilometres into the Park, as well as a shooting platform south of the Tiva River, which was destroyed. Unfortunately, the bicycle tracks, which were attended to by a ground team, did not lead to an arrest. One callout, for another poacher’s camp found by a ground team, resulted in the arrest of three bushmeat poachers in Tsavo West.

Whilst the bulk of poaching activity is generally for bushmeat, there were a number of injured elephants that were attended to by our KWS/SWT Mobile Vet teams with assistance from the airwing. These included a bull elephant on Giriama Ranch, which was actually a retreatment of a bull with a severe and persistent injury, which required follow-up. The bull was first located by fixed wing, and then because of the unavailability of the Tsavo vet, another fixed wing aircraft flew to Nanyuki to pick up Dr. Poghon to assist with the treatment. Finally, Dr. Poghon was flown to the helicopter, which also facilitated the darting. Poghon did his best to treat the wound but maintained a guarded prognosis. At the time of writing, the bull has unfortunately succumbed to his injuries.

On two occasions, while the Tsavo vet was still unavailable, the Amboseli vet, Dr. Kariuki, had to be flown to Tsavo for veterinary treatments. The first was of a bull elephant that came to the Ithumba stockade with an arrow wound to his front left ankle. Dr. Kariuki was flown first to Kaluku and then boarded a helicopter to fly to Ithumba for the darting and treatment of the bull, whom he assigned a good prognosis. The second job several days later was in Voi. On this occasion, Kariuki was flown directly to Voi and the SWT helicopter met him there and flew him to a bull elephant nearby. The elephant suffered from a severely infected snare wound. Fortunately, the snare was removed and after treatment and the administration of antibiotics, the bull is expected to make a full recovery.

Despite the above veterinary cases, the airwing did not discover any fresh carcasses or for that matter any carcasses with missing tusks. Five carcasses were found of various ages, but mostly old and all with tusks intact. Four sets of tusks were collected by helicopter, including one initially sighted by fixed wing, and delivered to KWS for safekeeping. The fifth set of tusks were collected by a ground team and also handed over to KWS. In all cases, it is assumed that they died of natural causes.

Other illegal activities sighted by the airwing included a wood carvers camp in the Chyulu Hills NP, which was active. The helicopter was able to land and rangers on board destroyed the camp along with the equipment and carvings contained therein. Also in the Chyulus, three marijuana plantations were found and destroyed. In Tsavo West, fresh mining activity was sighted, during a follow-up of information on the same.

One callout was attended to by a fixed wing to search an area in the Tsavo East Rhino area, after a report came in of gunshots heard. The area was searched extensively but nothing found.

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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