Moving The Giants: The Translocation of Elephants and Rhinos by KWS

Translocating the giants

The African elephant (Loxodonta Africana) has forced itself into global attention, becoming the flagship of wildlife conservation. The emphasis has overshadowed other species whose plight may be more precarious. Demand for ivory in Western markets peaked in the early 1980s, leading to a drastic decline in elephant populations through intense poaching. An alert was sounded throughout the conservation world, especially under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which campaigned hard to have the elephant listed in Appendix 1, outlawing any international trade in ivory.

The ivory trade ban helped to immediately resuscitate the elephant populations to stable levels in most of Africa, including Kenya. But given other socio-geographical factors, the elephants, as the rest of wildlife, were never to regain their former movement ranges and migratory patterns. The rapid build-up of human populations and dramatic changes in settlement policies after political independence from colonial rule led to irreversible habitat changes with most wildlife resorts remaining as partial ecological islands.

Migratory paths were blocked, pitting wildlife and the habitat on the one hand and wildlife and the surrounding people on the other. The impacts of these changes are now haunting the elephant conservation movement in many countries, especially Kenya whose wildlife conservation policies are wanting.

The elephant is a fascinating habitat modifier with a profound capacity to destroy vegetation, posing one of the most serious management crises both within and outside national parks.

But does any animal posses a positive natural ability to modify nature? Only humans, thanks to technology, can have a significant impact on the physical world. “Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting plant and animal species from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place and even the animals themselves…”, wrote Fredrick Engels in the introduction to his famous book, Dialectics of Nature. On animals, Engels declared that “their productive effect on surrounding nature, in relation to nature, amounts to nothing at all.” In other words, the impact of any animal species on the environment, in the last resort, is zero, a principle that eludes most managers and even scientists who mistakenly believe elephants have the charisma to change the environment.

An animal can impact on the habitat only under unnatural circumstances, and this is the best context within which to view the elephant problem. This applies to any other species said to be posing a threat to habitat or biodiversity. Through yet unclear phenomena, the socio-biological response of elephants to spatial compression is vegetation destruction, often at rates faster than regeneration. This leads to serious ecological degradation as has happened to the Amboseli National Park.

In February, the Elephant Programme of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), headed by Dr. John Waithaka, held a workshop at the Aberdare National Park to discuss the implications of elephant activity to biodiversity amid looming fears of an unfolding degradation in the Aberdare Forest.

Unfortunately, some biologists mistake this as a natural attribute of this majestic beast making it even more difficult to understand the philosophical context under which the animal is posing such complex management riddles.

The solution would be to widen the habitats and cruising ranges of wildlife to minimise their adverse impact on vegetation and ecological heritage. But this is politically and socially untenable. It would imply limiting animal numbers, including elephants, to levels that reflect the changing circumstances and resolve the contradiction of rising populations in constant or shrinking space.

Faced with the above dilemma, a policy manager in Kenya is hard put to deal with the elephant question. It is the darling of tourists and animal lovers the world over; a creature of outstanding evolutionary quality. But its awesome majesty signifies death and destruction to the peasant farmers in the countryside. Since we need both people and elephants, how do we unravel the paradox?

KWS has adopted a two-pronged approach. First, is the establishment of inter-habitat “corridors”. The corridors are assumed to simulate some naturalness which will restore dispersal patterns of large mammals to ease pressure in one area during critical periods, and to pre-empt pressure build-up within animal populations which may be manifested in conflicts with the people.

The second KWS approach is translocation. That involves moving animals from one area to another. For the first time in Kenyan conservation history, elephants are being moved over long distances from a crowded area to one where there is less conflict with people.

Since October last year, KWS has been translocating a targeted 26 elephants from the Mwea National Reserve in Eastern Province to the sprawling Tsavo East National Park in the Coast Province.

The project nearly stalled in the early stages when three animals died after darting. It was put in abeyance until June when it resumed. But a failure rate of about 30 per cent is, technically, “allowed” given the complexity of the exercise, according to Dr. Waithaka.

Expert analyses later revealed that the animals died of acidosis, a phenomenon characterised by increased acidity in blood serum due to excessive consumption of ions like potassium. Such ions are known to be in high quantities in lush vegetation, especially after heavy rains as was the case in Mwea. The condition can, however, be accentuated by stress caused by the chasing and darting. The exercise has resumed and is going smoothly.

The question in the minds of some curious observers is whether the translocation of elephants is a viable conservation method.

This skepticism is founded on the high unit cost of moving the elephants, considering other scientific and philosophical issues are hardly addressed.

First, the population in Tsavo is growing naturally and is definitely poised to reach its ecological optimum sooner or later, especially given the near extermination of poaching. Are additional elephants not merely tipped to accelerate the build-up, and hasten a similar crisis?

Secondly, elephants die naturally. Killing merely circumvents this natural process and is a well known conservation and management tool. Then on what scientific principles is the enormous translocation cost hinged?

Some observers feel there is justification in postponing a problem, to have enough time to study it and look for solutions. Others feel culling might contradict the Appendix 1 status of the animal or might encourage a resurgence in poaching. But besides the divergent views, the most overwhelming obstacle to killing elephants is the uproar the initiative is likely to stir in conservation circles.

The elephant is an animal most people would not stand being killed in the name of management. Human, moral and ethical imperatives are attached to the animal, said to have feelings and family bonds which are interrupted if a member is shot dead. In his compelling book, At the hand of Man, Raymond Bonner observes the following regarding the campaign against the ivory trade: “…… the campaign was intense with more effort given to slogans, sound bites and gruesome pictures of elephants with their faces hacked off than good science and rational debate …… Above all, Africans were ignored, overwhelmed, manipulated and outmanoeuvred – by a conservation crusade led, orchestrated and dominated by white Westerners…” (page 34).

This does not imply that elephants should not be accorded civilised management policies. But should an animal’s rights be respected and upheld even when they threaten the socio-economic interests of humans?

However, the leverage foreign powers and tourist networks hold on policy matters is of urgent concern and remains an indomitable obstacle to wildlife culling and consumptive utilisation in Kenya, which lacks a home-grown conservation ideology. That, for instance, the elephant translocation was done at no monetary cost to either KWS or the country was the focus of attention, glossing over the underlying concerns.

But as African economic experience has shown, donor funds merely ameliorate symptoms, postponing the day of reckoning. Kenyan conservation authorities may as well be challenged to make hard and sensitive decisions. Obsession with donor money only forecloses the opportunity to indigenise our resource management.

Meanwhile, one can only wish the elephants a comfortable life in their new domiciles, hoping they will learn to make peace, not war, with their human neighbours.

Besides the elephants, black rhinos were also moved from the Nairobi National Park to, incidentally, Tsavo East.

The black rhino (Diceros Bicornis) suffered severe poaching in the late 70s and early 80s which threatened to make the species extinct. The animal is killed for its horn believed (though unconfirmed) to contain an aphrodisiac. The most confirmed uses include the making of handles for traditional and cultural weapons like daggers which are said to be quite popular in the Far and Middle East countries, including China.

The greatest decline in rhino numbers in Africa took place in the 70s at the end of which all rhino species were listed in Appendix 1 of CITES.

In Kenya, poaching reduced the population to what most scientists felt was unviable. The current population was salvaged from isolated patches in areas where there was either exceptionally good security (like on private ranches) or dense forests (like Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares).

Today, Kenya is reputed to have set up one of the most successful programmes of black rhino rehabilitation in Africa. According to Tim Oloo, the Rhino Project coordinator at KWS, the current national population of about 440 animals is a tremendous achievement from only about 200 at the start of the programme.

Sanctuaries set up within high security and surveillance areas were used as breeding reservoirs to establish nuclear populations from which the animal could be reintroduced into its former natural ranges and habitats.

Kenya has three such sanctuaries, Lake Nakuru and Nairobi National Parks, and the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West National Park. The principle behind a sanctuary is to provide adequate security within a small confine. This way the number is monitored daily to forestall threats like poaching or disease. It is also possible to manipulate natural competition in favour of the species.

The animals are also brought closer together to enhance breeding potential which may be hard to achieve naturally where population is low and the area, very big. The solitary nature of the animals may only make matters worse in such situations.

The population performance in the sanctuaries and private ranches has been quite steady raising fears of overstocking within these sanctuaries. Therefore, the basis behind translocation is that there is an optimum level beyond which an area cannot host any more animals.

Such a level is called a carrying capacity and is determined by such factors as the species biomass, metabolic turnover, type of vegetation and pressure of ecological competitors. To work out a carrying capacity, however, is chasing an ecological wild goose. Most managers look for an operational definition depending on proximate exigencies. KWS rhino management programme had suggested 55 animals for Nairobi and Nakuru and recommended that any surplus be taken to other areas. Nairobi had a population of 64 at the time of the translocation.

Like in elephant translocation, the exercise needs some basic reconnaissance to establish the sexes of the animals, age, home range and family, where applicable. This ensures that animals of the same sex are not taken together. Usually few males are taken per a group of females of reproductive age so that breeding is not interrupted.

Searching is done at the time of translocation. The identified candidates are searched both from the air and the ground by people conversant with the population. Thorough communication is necessary, to ensure only the identified animal is darted after which some brief ritual is conducted before loading it into a crate then onto a lorry for transportation to a new home.

Ndung’u wa Njaga,
(A Research Scientist,)
Reporting for Safarimate.