Thinking Big: Save Space for Elephants, the Rest Will Follow

Dominic Mijele exhales slowly and deliberately, his finger hovering over the trigger. His target feebly reaches out with her trunk to tug at a loose acacia branch, but she has little appetite. Her bulk is only half visible through the thick bush and it is far from a clear shot, but Dominic knows it’s now or never. He has been on her trail for 24 hours, and time is running out. 

Everything freezes for a moment. The noises of Land Cruiser engines, crackling radios, and hollering fade. He fires. She goes down. 

Organized chaos erupts as technicians, nurses, and rangers prep and monitor the elephant to ensure Dr. Mijele can treat her before the tranquilizer wears off, or the relentless Kenyan sun takes its toll on her body temperature.   

Like so many before her, this young female is the victim of a spear. But it has nothing to do with her ivory. 

In fact, this is one of three elephant rescues carried out last month by our partners in East Africa, and not one of them was linked to poaching. 

While The Nature Conservancy has ramped up support to wildlife security in key areas of Africa over the past few years — and this has contributed to a 66 percent decrease in elephant poaching in north Kenya — the reality is that even if the ivory trade was to stop overnight, wild African elephants would still face growing dangers. 

These rescues illustrate other threats to elephants, and the urgent work we’re doing with partners to enable the species to survive and to thrive. 

RESCUE ONE: HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT  THE BATTLE FOR FOOD    

Dr. Mijele goes about his treatment in autopilot — he’s seen so many spear victims now. This young elephant was almost certainly wounded by a farmer trying desperately to protect his only livelihood, as she either trampled his crops while passing through or was found helping herself to food that the farmer’s family needs. 

By luck or memory, she retreated to Loisaba Conservancy, a 56,000-acre preserve that TNC helped establish. Loisaba rangers found her and put into motion an emergency effort to save her life. 

After cleaning her wound, spraying her with antiseptic, and giving her a long acting antibiotic, Dr. Mijele has the elephant back on her feet within 10 minutes. He is confident she’ll make a full recovery; she’s one of the fortunate ones. Cases of elephants killed as a result of human-wildlife conflict like this are on the rise. In Kenya alone, there has been an 86% increase of human-wildlife conflict between 2011 and 2015.

The rangers will continue to monitor her progress for as long as she stays in the vicinity of Loisaba Conservancy. But they don’t expect her to hang around. 

Elephants spend their lives on the move, following ancient migration routes that pay no mind to park boundaries or national borders. As the human population grows, so too do farms and settlements in the unprotected areas along these routes, leading to increased cases of conflict as both sides just try to survive. 

Large areas of well-conserved and well-stewarded land like Loisaba Conservancy therefore play a vital role in providing elephants with a safe space to feed and breed away from these pressures. They also provide the necessary framework for vets and scientists to help wildlife in need. 

RESCUE TWO: SANCTUARY AND A CHANCE TO GO HOME

The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary usually names the calves in their care after the place they were found. Little “Loisaba” is almost unrecognizable from the malnourished and aimless elephant he was a few weeks ago. Found by staff at Loisaba Conservancy’s Starbeds Lodge, the tiny bull was seen trying to join passing herds, having been left behind by his own for reasons no one understands. But he was repeatedly rejected, and in a bad state. 

So lodge staff called in the swat team of Samburu elephant caretakers from Reteti — the first community-run wildlife orphanage in East Africa. 

Reteti Sanctuary is based in Namunyak Community Conservancy, one of the oldest members of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), who support community-based conservation in northern Kenya. TNC is working with NRT to empower indigenous communities to sustainably manage natural resources for the continued benefit of their families, their livestock, and for wildlife. 

“Loisaba” is settling well into his new herd at the sanctuary, spending his days wallowing in mud and exploring the bush with the dedicated elephant keepers who were all employed from the local community. Many of them will openly admit to being apathetic to the plight of their giant neighbors a few years ago, although you wouldn’t think it to look at them now. They sleep, eat, and breathe baby elephants with complete devotion. 

Indeed, the existence of the Reteti Sanctuary is a testament to the value the community in Namunyak now place on wildlife, and the faith that the authorities have in the strength of their leadership and security teams — both of which continue to be supported by TNC. 

Reteti aims to rerelease all the orphaned or abandoned elephant calves in their care. With NRT-member conservancies now covering 4.5 million hectares of northern Kenya, there is a vast network of protected indigenous lands emerging that links to private preserves like Loisaba Conservancy and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

This provides us with an immense opportunity to secure large portions of elephant migration routes, so that little “Loisaba” and his stable mates have a safe landscape to return to. 

RESCUE THREE: LOCAL HEROES TAKE THE LEAD  

The dry season puts pressure on pastoral communities and wildlife alike — often forcing them together at water points and the last areas of good grazing. Competition for these natural resources, particularly in times of drought, is another big driver of human-wildlife conflict in Africa. 

It was a long, dry 2017 summer in northern Tanzania. So when two elephants in Randilen Wildlife Management Area (WMA) returned to a waterhole they remembered as being full; all that remained was a muddy puddle surrounded by steep, slippery banks. Driven by thirst, they slid down to drink — and soon found themselves unable to get back out. 

This waterhole is also frequented by livestock herders, who come to water their cattle after a day’s grazing. When Maasai herders came across the elephants that evening, the easiest option would have been to turn a blind eye. And traditionally, they would have done.   

After all, why rescue two dangerous animals that are likely to raid your neighbor’s maize crop, threaten your village, and compete with you for the last of the dry season’s precious water? 

But the discourse is changing in Randilen MWA, supported by TNC and partners in the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative (NTRI). These herders have been to multiple community meetings about the benefits of wildlife conservation. The grass sustaining their cattle is a result of the WMAs efforts to manage rangelands for the benefit of wild animals and livestock equally. One of them has a sister employed in a local tourist lodge — a business wholly reliant on healthy wildlife populations that generates revenue for all eight villages in Randilen. 

This is why an army of helpers from the local village joined the herders to successfully dig an exit trench for the elephants;putting in hours of backbreaking work for an animal they once thought of as expendable. 

Attitudes take time to change, but across our program sites in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, more and more examples of organic conservation heroism are emerging as communities take ownership of their natural resources. 

This attitude shift is perhaps best summarized by the fact that grainy videos of this elephant rescue, taken on community-members’ smart phones, instantly did the rounds on local social media, garnering kudos for all involved. 

BIGGER THAN ELEPHANTS  

After their release, the two mud-coated elephants disappeared into the bush. There’s enough healthy habitat on Randilen WMA to support them through the drought. Somewhere in the vast, wild beauty of Loisaba Conservancy, the spear-injured elephant is healing. And at Reteti Sanctuary, the little elephant named after Loisaba is growing stronger. 

These rescues aren’t just poignant stories. They’re proof that the suite of complex, science-guided strategies we’re implementing to conserve huge expanses of indigenous lands can indeed make life better for people and wildlife, including elephants. They are also proof that we must work together to increase the pace of large scale conservation in East Africa.

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