Collaring the elephant

July 03, 1996|By Joseph R. Berger

NAIROBI -- When I had a summer job in the Baltimore Zoo's mammal department, I never saw an operation as big as this, just to put a single animal to sleep. There were four Land Rovers and a light plane, seven biologists, four veterinarians, three camouflaged, heavily-armed rangers, one journalist and myself, a student on exchange from Dartmouth College.

Because it was an elephant. The bull was shot with a tranquilizer to protect him from the bullets of hunters and poachers -- although for this particular elephant, outside Kenya's Amboseli National Park, and for all Kenya's elephants, these are not their greatest problems.

I went with a researcher from the Kenya Wildlife Service to the camp at Amboseli of Cynthia Moss, the American who began an elephant study here in 1972.

The wildlife service wants to collar some of these elephants. ''There are at least three mysteries to be solved about the Amboseli elephants,'' says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the scientist chiefly responsible for documenting the decline in elephant numbers across the continent during the rampant poaching of the 1970s and '80s. The British charity he founded pays for the radio collars.

Our Land Rovers headed west of the park, onto Olgulului group ranch, communally owned by Masai pastoralists, which surrounds Amboseli on three sides. After a morning's search we came upon a suitable bull. He was identified as M162, ''Parsitau,'' by Ms. Moss' research team, three Masai women who count the elephants every day, keeping track of about 900 individually.

At 28 or 29 years, Parsitau's big tusks made him a potential target for hunters or poachers, and he was known to disappear from the park.

Hunting in Kenya was banned in 1977, but it is legal in Tanzania, and Amboseli, by Mt. Kilimanjaro, is close to the border. Just over a year ago, three of Amboseli's largest and oldest bulls were shot for sport across the line, before an informal agreement against hunting near the border.

Last summer, the Kenya Wildlife Service collared a bull here on Olgulului, and it has been to Tanzania and back, shedding light on the first mystery.

In February, Ms. Moss' research team found the skinned, tuskless body of M10, ''Oloitipitip,'' a 50-year old bull, killed in Tanzania by poachers.

Where the bulls are

''If we have to plan for their security,'' says John Waithaka, director of the wildlife service's elephant program, ''we need to know where they are going.''

I saw the third collar put on in April. A veterinarian drove up to Parsitau and darted the trusting giant. He jolted like a jumbo bee had stung him. After six minutes, he was down. His breath rumbled like stormy Kilimanjaro and his toes twitched as vets dug a passage under his neck.

''Try lifting him up by the tusk,'' Mr. Douglas-Hamilton told us, but eight of us could not budge the massive head. It had to be gently winched by a car, so the collar could be fitted.

When it was on, the vets turned their attention to the ugly wound they had discovered on Parsitau's shoulder. They drained at least a quart of pus and injected antibiotics. When they were finished, they injected an antidote to the tranquilizer, and within minutes Parsitau was up and about.

His wound was not from a bullet; it was from a spear.

Ever since the park was declared off-limits to the Masai and their cattle in the 1970s, there have been sour feelings toward conservation and periodic spearings of elephants. Not only are Masai cattle denied access to the permanent water inside the park, but in the few areas outside where agriculture is practiced elephants raid the crops.

Since the 1989 ban on international trade in ivory, poaching in Kenya has declined and the elephant population has risen from 20,000 to 25,000. But conflict between farmers and elephants has increased. Now the wildlife service has to kill problem elephants that trample crops and threaten human life; it shoots about 60 each year.

Since David Western took over as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service two years ago, his focus has been twofold: solving conflict between wildlife and people, and involving local communities in conservation.

Around some parks and reserves, electric fences are going up to keep elephants in. But the preferred solution, from an ecological perspective, is to keep elephants roaming over a larger area, outside the parks.

As Amboseli's elephant population has grown in recent decades, large numbers sought refuge from poaching inside the park, where the collective elephant appetite transformed the habitat completely, from woodland to grassland. Keeping elephants outside the park is possible in semi-arid areas like Amboseli, where agriculture is limited and Masai pastoralists have struck a balance with wildlife for hundreds of years.

When I attended a conference on biodiversity in March, Mr. Western talked about recent steps taken in Amboseli.

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