Monday, November 26, 2012

Amboseli Update and Getting Robbed by an Elephant

Greetings once again from Amboseli. Here in the central part of the park we are still waiting for the rainy season to truly arrive, as we’ve just had a few random, brief rain showers. Luckily for the ecosystem as a whole, it seems to have rained everywhere but here, so the wildlife can take advantage of fresh grass growing around the park. Many of the elephants have followed the rain, so we aren’t seeing as many as we often do. When they do come back into the park they are being very social, gathering into large groups of multiple families as they like to do when there is enough food to go around. In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen an aggregation of close to 300 elephants and another of over 100. It’s always quite a sight to see so many together, especially when you can just park and let them come all around you, as we do. Sitting surrounded a crowd of wild elephants, made up of hundreds of tons of pure strength and power but completely relaxed, even ignoring the Land Rover, is an unforgettable experience. I think if everyone had the chance to have that experience, watching the interactions between mothers and calves and family members, most people would understand what remarkable animals they are and what a loss it would be to no longer have wild elephants in the world.

Though we are grateful for the rain in the ecosystem, it is when the elephants are ranging outside the park boundaries that they often run into danger.  Last month we had three elephants poached for their ivory tusks. It was a matriarch and her two young daughters. Between them they left two small calves as orphans. One was rescued and sent to the elephant orphanage in Nairobi, while the other disappeared and is now presumed dead. In an area to the east of Amboseli there have been two bulls speared to death and a female who died of unknown causes, leaving yet another orphan. Another bull was found in the park with seven spear wounds, but he was treated by a vet and seems to be recovering. All of these events are very distressing, as they were named individuals who have been known to the researchers here since birth or a very young age, but the Amboseli elephants are still very fortunate when you compare their situation to the dangers faced by elephants in other parts of Kenya and Africa. ATE and its partners in the ecosystem are striving constantly to keep this population safe and intact.

Not having as many elephants around means that we are getting fewer elephant visits to camp, which I mentioned in my last post as one of the great pleasures of living here. The man we have staying in camp to do tent repairs, who is apparently not so in awe of that experience, shares a different perspective: “In other camps where I have worked, the place where the workers sleep is inside a fence and they have guards. There, you do not have to be afraid to go to the choo [latrine] at night. But here the elephants come, even brushing against the makuti [thatched roof made from palm fronds], and will not let me sleep. I need my rest to do this work.” We have had a few incidents with elephants in camp since I’ve been here. One particularly active night an elephant tusked through the back of an (unoccupied) tent while eating a small  acacia tree growing next to it, and the next morning one of the camp staff was trapped in his tent for some time because a young elephant was sleeping on its side right outside the front flap.

I had my own run-in a couple of weeks later. A young male woke me up in the middle of the night feeding right next to my bed, and I watched as he slowly moved around to the other side. I have a small privacy fence at the front of my tent since I’m right in the middle of camp, and he decided he wanted to eat the grass inside the fence. I watched him for a few minutes, not wanting to startle him and risk him tearing down the fence as he backed away. Then he noticed my towel hanging on the line in front of him. He reached for it, and I decided it was time for him to move along.  I told him to go away and knocked on the top of my desk to make a little noise. He gingerly pulled his head and tusks back over the fence- and plucked my towel off the line as he went. In the moonlight I had a clear view as he took a few steps away and proceeded to swing the towel around with his trunk, slapping it on the ground and his sides before draping it over his head and walking away. I assumed the stolen towel would disappear in to the palms, never to be seen again, but the next morning we found it at the edge of camp, filthy and thoroughly chewed on but not torn apart or tusked through. I woke up the next night to an elephant at the fence again (I strongly suspect it was the same one, remembering the fun he had had), but I told him to leave a little more sternly this time and he didn’t have a chance to repeat his prank.

For the people back home, the winner so far for best comment about me being from Kansas (much better than the typical “Do you know Dorothy?” which is frankly pretty lazy): [On the suggestion that we watch Footloose one night] “Oh that would be good. I’m sure Mark could relate to it since he’s from Kansas.” I quickly explained that, even in Kansas, we do in fact allow dancing. Spreading cultural awareness!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Getting Settled and a Viral Video

Sorry for the delay in getting this up and running. For everyone I haven’t been in contact with yet, I am in fact alive and well and having a fantastic time. I’ve been in Amboseli for about a month now and it’s a great time to be in the park. The elephant baby boom officially ended on October 12th, with right at 225 births recorded since that day in 2011. This baby boom was a response to the terrible drought of 2009 in which we lost 406 elephants, young and old, and this influx of births is a great sign of recovery. We’re currently at the end of the dry season, but generous rain over the last year means that there is still plenty of food in the park and none of the animals are in bad shape. From camp we can see rain falling on the slopes of Kilimanjaro fairly frequently, which is a signal that we can expect the rains to begin soon here in Amboseli.

 I’ve enjoyed getting out in the field with the project researchers whenever I can to see the elephants, who are a pleasure to watch since they are well-fed and happy and excited about all the new calves. We also have frequent elephant visitors in camp. The EA, EB, and GB families can often be seen feeding in the surrounding clearings and swamps during the day. In the middle of the night, however, they don’t mind coming right in to feed among the tents, and it’s not unusual to wake up to the sound of ripping grass and see an elephant just a few feet away from your bed in the moonlight.

 We’ve had several interesting events in the last two weeks, the first of which is pretty well known by now. On Monday the 8th we were called out to rescue Zombe’s female calf from a Maasai well west of the park. The rest is, somewhat surprisingly for all of us, viral video history. Some really wonderful footage of the rescue and reunion was captured during the process by team members Robert Sayialel and Vicki Fishlock, and the video Robert edited for YouTube started getting some major attention about a week later. I’ve been amazed at the response of people excited about and inspired by the work that the project does, as well as by the number of anonymous internet commenters who felt they were well-informed enough to question the rescue methods. One comment I found and appreciated: “You only deserve the right to criticize if you have successfully rescued more than one wild elephant from a well.” I won’t go into a detailed explanation here of why we did it the way we did, but if anyone is curious or had their own questions I’d be happy to tell you about it.

 And if you haven’t seen it yet on Yahoo!, HuffPo, or the Facebook newsfeeds of my friends and cousins (thanks guys!), here you go:

 The next day another calf fell in the same well. Work to make it less dangerous had not yet been completed while we tried to determine if anyone claimed sole ownership of that well. Since it was outside the park boundaries and cattle are the sole asset of many Maasai in the area, it would obviously be inappropriate to do something to an important water source without checking things out first. One side of the well was dug out to a more gradual slope the following day. This second calf had already been abandoned by his mother, who was no doubt terrified of the people and cattle that arrived at the well. As a result he was sent to the Nairobi elephant orphanage of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where I hear he is settling in nicely. I was not present at the second rescue because I managed to ingest bacteria from the well water during a breakfast in the field following the first rescue and was confined to my bed the whole next day. Lesson learned and extra hand sanitizer purchased!

 Not every day in Amboseli is filled with exciting events like elephant rescues, and I’m getting settled into a routine now with my work. For that reason, I invite anyone reading to comment if you have a question or are curious about some topic related to the elephants, Amboseli, or living over here, and then I can work on posts that people will hopefully find interesting.

 More soon!