The Masai Mara is home to the greatest and most spectacular ungulate migration in the world
The Masai Mara is home to the greatest and most spectacular ungulate migration in the world. Millions of Wildebeests accompanied by Zebras, Thomson Gazelles, Topis and followed closely by numerous Carnivores and birds of prey all cross manmade and Natural barriers to get to the rich savanna grassland of Masai Mara annually. This therefore ranks Masai Mara as one of the prime game viewing areas in the world in terms of sightings and game diversity. The general Mara ecosystem hosts approximately 3072 Elephants. These Elephants are able to freely move in and out of the protected area without any hindrance and therefore their survival is supported heavily by the neighboring community lands, conservancies and ranchlands. Considering the threats facing the African Elephant today, every effort is being made and should be made to conserve and protect every one individual for the survival and wellbeing of this vital species that stands as the largest terrestrial mammal. Another small population of 225 Elephants is basically cut off from the rest of the Elephants by increased human activities in the Narok North area. Initially all Maasais practiced pastoralism and therefore there was never any conflict with humans. But not any more. Times have changed with population increase resulting in a change of way of life and therefore changing land use. Therefore most Maasais in this area are now farmers and most of the forests have disappeared all together. This has exacerbated the Elephant-Human conflict whereby this isolated population strays onto the farmlands every time they venture out of the bushes. The collaring of two Matriarchs in June 2011 showed that these Elephants are always hovering near the many parcels of maize and wheat farms. Clearly these Elephants had no future in these tiny pockets of bushes sandwiched between vast farmlands. A major decision had to be made to save these elephants from further conflict with humans in the area. And the most practical solution was to move them out of these farmlands to the Masai Mara where they would have a better chance of survival.
Equipment. Three days before the maiden capture, all the necessary equipment was transported to the capture site and a camp was put up to host the capture teams. This consisted of tents of various sizes to accommodate people and also shelter the various pieces of equipment from the vagaries of weather. The area where this isolated population of elephants resides is hilly and characterized by very difficult terrain. There are a number of streams that emanate from the Mau forest on the west and they are deep and forested providing perfect cover for these elephants. This makes it nearly impossible to access them by a vehicle. Mentioned below are the various pieces of equipment and their uses in the operation. Fixed Wing Four Seater Aircraft This small single engine aircraft is used for spotting the location of the elephants. A message is relayed to the darting team which is stationed in a Bell helicopter. Helicopter This KWS Bell Helicopter comes in handy since it can fly very low in the rugged terrain enabling the vets to get clear shots of the Elephants on the ground. Its also used to drive the darted animals out of the thick bushes onto more accessible areas.
Procedure. The Vets prepare the darts at daybreak. Various doses are prepared according to the varying ages and sexes of the elephants. This is mainly for juveniles, sub adults and adults. These darts are then marked accordingly. Early in the morning at six, the fixed wing aircraft takes to the skies with a spotter and an Elephant research scientist. They relay the information about the location and sizes of all the elephant families they spot in the area. Once this information is received the ground teams move closer to where the elephants are. The helicopter carrying the Vets and another Elephant research scientist takes to the skies to the location of the elephants. The lifting cranes and the Pick up trucks with the ground teams wait at a safe distance. Once the Elephants have been successfully darted and fully narcotized the capture rangers with the ground vets/teams quickly get to the scene. Thereafter the lifting cranes are directed to the scene to commence loading and transport to the recovery crate for revival and loading in to the transport crate.
The Diaries Day 1- On a Monday afternoon, we arrived at the Siyapei camp which is about 100 Kilometers from Masai Mara and put up our tents. Day 2- Early the following morning, the spotter plane takes off and many elephants are spotted close to the camp. The helicopter takes off and starts encircling the elephants in a bid to dart them. A mother and calf run away from the main family group running past our tents but is successfully darted. The rest of the family group runs deep in to the bushes and freeze. Due to sweltering heat the operation is called off for that day and the mother and its calf are driven to the Masai Mara national reserve. Both are successfully released in the reserve.
At the end of operation, sixty two elephants in total were captured, transported and successfully released in the Masai Mara.
Micheni Felix- Mara Vet Unit.