At age 23, Koya set out on a remarkable journey.
Fitted with a GPS tracking collar and with Mount Kenya behind her, Koya and six of her elephant family members headed north leaving the Samburu plains, their motivation a mystery. Over the course of 16 days in April, they traversed an area in northern Kenya that elephants rarely dare to roam. In their path was years of regional conflict and ivory poaching making for a barrier once too dangerous to venture. Fortunately for Koya and her family, this time was different. In the midst of a global pandemic and with extra surveillance from organizations around them, they criss-crossed the remote and arid lands of Kenya’s northern counties safely trekking 48 miles to the foothills of Mt. Marsabit.
The story of Koya’s journey isn’t lost on elephant experts. For the first time, they recorded a female elephant making this trip giving them hope. To them, Koya’s trek suggests elephants are starting to feel safe again.
“Elephants are exquisitely sensitive to risk, and don’t take expeditions across dangerous landscapes lightly,” said Save the Elephants’ CEO Frank Pope. “But, for a female elephant like Koya, exposed with a young in tow, this is an especially significant decision.”
Demand for ivory as well as human-elephant conflict has devastated most of Africa’s elephant populations and northern Kenya’s are no exception. Today however, efforts by indigenous communities in the area to build peace and end the ivory crisis appear to be paying off. Supported by organizations like the Save the Elephants and Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) in partnership with the Kenyan government, these community conservancies are improving security for wildlife and people but also building sustainable economies linked to conservation. Since 2012, the number of elephants killed for their ivory have dropped significantly. And Koya’s willingness to journey out of the Samburu plains is just another signal of the change that’s happening in the region.
While nothing can substitute an engaged community focused on protecting its people, wildlife and landscape, the infusion of technology is giving Pope and others a powerful tool to monitor and safeguard wildlife. Right now, Save the Elephants is tracking Koya and about 100 elephants across Kenya. Using Vulcan’s EarthRanger, a data visualization and analysis software for protected area management, Save the Elephants and NRT are able to combine real-time data from Koya’s GPS collar, ranger patrols, remote imaging, and various sensors to guide the deployment of rangers to protect elephants from poachers. EarthRanger is also helping warn communities of crop-raiding elephants. Just as valuable though are the insights and historical trends EarthRanger is helping to unlock for research.
“Tracking technology gives elephants a voice, showing us where they want to be in different circumstances. EarthRanger gives us a platform not only to watch elephant movements in real time but to inspire analyses that help plan landscapes for the future,” said Pope.
Researchers with Save the Elephants and NRT say the data they’ve been able to record has been critical in helping them understand elephant behavior. In the last 20 years, they’ve been able to investigate more than 900 elephants and are currently tracking 400 elephants across Africa. This has resulted in 160 published peer-reviewed papers deepening the world’s understand of elephants. Through this work, they’ve been able to identify elephant “highways” or corridors. And much like a traffic controller, they have the information needed to suggest to officials what routes could be closed and what ones need to stay open to reduce conflict with people. Over the long term, this is ensuring the needs of elephants are considered in conservation planning.
Koya’s footprints are a step in the right direction. For elephant experts like Pope and community-focused organizations like NRT, they show that when a community is committed and has the support and resources it needs, wildlife like elephants can return to the spaces they once thrived.