By David Banks
Night turning into day is a gentle squeeze in northern Kenya. The guttural exclamations of Vereaux’s eagle owl give way to the calls of ring-neck doves and francolin, and the flutter of free-tailed bat wings is replaced by raucous hornbills moving tree to tree.
Here in this cupped valley of the Mathews Range, I had faded to sleep last night to the grunts and trumpets of 30 elephants pushing toward a small spring below my camp. Though elephants frequently rumble across this slice of the Namunyak Conservancy, they are now quiet and at peace.
But as the biggest bull elephants drinking water last night undoubtedly remember, a mere 25 years ago this valley was a killing field. Poachers eliminated the rhino, and elephants suffered severe declines. The survivors retreated to refuges like Samburu Reserve and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which The Nature Conservancy is helping to protect.
Today, we’re seeking to find out whether it’s only this special valley that has changed for the better—or whether Lewa, the Northern Rangelands Trust and almost 3 million acres under NRT communal conservancies have transformed the region. To measure the effects of conservation efforts here, we’re employing a combination of science and human will.
To get this right, we have to ruin an elephant’s day. Working with Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, we’re hoping to collar an older matriarch that is new to Lewa. If we can get a satellite collar on her, we will be able to track her movements and better understand the value of surrounding communal lands to elephants and other wildlife.
The sun is already high by the time we locate the herd, so we move quickly to isolate our target elephant. But as we prepare to fire a tranquilizer dart, we notice that she is visibly pregnant. Rather than risk a complication, we decide to tranquilize another female.
The dart hits home, and within minutes the elephant goes wobbly. She urinates and defecates as if trying to expel the fog-inducing substance, but soon her legs fold and she drops to the ground.
The other elephants are startled, but before they can rally around their fallen companion, we maneuver our land cruisers in concert, among much head shaking and trumpeting. A single elephant breaking through would create serious problems, but in a reasonable imitation of a Wyoming roundup, we herd the family of 20 elephants across the valley.
Working quickly to reduce stress on the sedated elephant, we pour water over her ears to keep her cool, monitor her temperature and pulse, and stretch out her trunk for easier breathing. We then quickly fit a collar around her neck.
Despite the short time, we note some remarkable details. Her feet are as calloused as a barefoot Maasai’s, but they are tender to the touch. Her body sports bristle-like hairs that allow her to sense and feel other elephants. With our hands placed lightly on her chest, we feel the life going in and out with each heavy sigh. We then spot a nasty old scar where a snare had encircled and nearly severed her right hind leg.
After administering the antidote, we retreat to our trucks. The elephant first raises her head, then shakes it to loosen the cobwebs—likely her first hangover. She stands abruptly and looks around, perhaps wondering what just happened.
In the distance, she can make out the rest of her herd—her mobile village—and she quickly rejoins them. Adorned with her new necklace, she is already sending us data about where she goes and why.
We have a lot to learn from this old survivor.