Project Description

The Day We Collared Tim, the Great Tusker

September 16, 2016 | Paula Kahumbu | The Guardian

Paula Kahumbu: The latest satellite tracking technology is helping to keep elephants safe from poachers—and away from farmers’ crops

On a beautiful sunny day in Amboseli National Park, against the backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, a small group of cars was gathered at a safe distance around the prostrate bull elephant. The elephant lay still in the dust, head on the ground, his enormous tusks and trunk stretched out in front of him. Tension rose among the onlookers as the minutes passed.

Then the huge elephant flapped his ear, got up gently, shook his head vigorously in a vain attempt to dislodge the strange object around his neck, and walked off. We all breathed a sigh of relief. The operation to attach a tracking collar to Tim had gone perfectly.

We gathered around as, Kitili Mbathi, Director General of Kenya Wildlife Service, thanked veterinary staff and KWS rangers for their professionalism in conducting the operation, and the NGOs present for their support: WildlifeDirect for initiating the plan and providing the finance, Save The Elephants (STE) for donating the collar, and Big Life Foundation and the Amboseli Trust for Elephants for their logistic and scientific back-up.

Addressing members of local Maasai communities present, Mr. Mbathi said: “We are committed to exploring effective methods to keep our communities safe while securing all of our elephants, especially valuable individuals like Tim.” The collar would keep Tim safe—and away from farmers’ crops.

But how does it work, one of the Maasai women asked. Frank Pope of STE explained the technology (click here for more information): once an hour the collar lets out a beep, inaudible to humans, that sends details of his location to a satellite. This information can be picked up by rangers on their mobile phones so they know where he is. Fascinated, the women crowded around his phone to see how the information was displayed. “I get it,” one lady said. “It’s works just the same way as my cow bells.”

A security team tracks Tim’s position on a map on the cell phone. If it shows him moving close to agricultural areas, they can respond, move in to head him off before he causes any trouble. If the GPS shows Tim standing still for several hours, it sends an alert that Tim may be in trouble.

The great tuskers – elephants at risk

Tim is one of the last remaining great tuskers in Kenya. This is the term used to describe African elephants—usually males—whose tusks are so long that they reach the ground. The great tuskers are an irreplaceable symbol of our continent’s unique natural heritage. But their magnificent tusks act like a magnet for poachers (and in some countries still for trophy hunters) and mean that these elephants are constantly at risk.

Over the years, the systematic extermination by hunters and poachers of big tuskers—and their gene pool—has acted as a form of “unnatural selection” that is the reverse of Darwin’s theory: as a result most elephants in Africa today have smaller tusks that they did 100 years ago.

2014 was a black year, when two of Kenya’s most iconic great tuskers, Satao and Mountain Bull, were killed by poachers.Thankfully, Tim is still alive and known to be a prolific father. He is much sought after by females in oestrus and has spent his adult life passing on his genes to elephant population in Amboseli. Now 47 years old, Tim was named by Cynthia Moss, founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, as part of what has become the world’s longest running scientific study of the species. His name indicates that he is a member of the “T family”, like his mother Trista (click here to read the fascinating histories of the T family and other elephant families in Amboseli).

I have interacted with Tim several times and his name matches his feisty personality. He is friendly, smart and charismatic, popular among tourists and looked up to by younger bull elephants. Unfortunately he is also, on occasion, a crop raider. As he enters late middle age, he seems to be getting more brazen. Moreover the younger males in his entourage are learning from his example.

This means that Tim is less popular among local farmers. The Maasai traditionally revere elephants. However the expansion of commercial agricultural in areas once dedicated to livestock production is increasingly brining people into conflict with elephants. Although Amboseli elephants are not usually aggressive, they can be bad-tempered and their large size makes them dangerous. In 2016 alone, 8 people have been killed by elephants in the area and 6 more have been seriously injured.

An elephant raid on a crop plantation can have a devastating impact on family livelihoods. When farmers find elephants in their crops at night, tempers quickly get inflamed. In Amboseli, farmers often take matters into their own hands and try to scare the elephants away with flares and noises as well as spears. Tim has survived more than one spear attack, and has the scars to prove it.

A narrow escape

It was following one of these occasions, almost two years ago, that the idea of attaching the collar arose. In a previous blog post, I described how we discovered Tim, injured, during a board meeting of WildlifeDirect that was held in Amboseli:

It is 4.50 pm and the sun is gleaming on his ivory. An audible “aaaaaahhh” emanates from all of us. Tim is truly spectacular. Then Tim notices us and turns. It is as if he is hiding that which we find so beautiful, which too many Chinese are addicted to, and which translates to dollar signs for greedy poachers.

We sit quietly contemplating the giant Tim. I am acutely aware that it is very strange for this elephant I know so well to be so shy. He is usually proud and confident, and loves attention and cameras. And then the bombshell, as we see the sore his left flank, where blood and white clumps of puss are oozing out. This is why Tim is acting so strangely. He is in great pain.

Thankfully prompt veterinary attention by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was able to treat the wound. And since then he has been monitored 24/7 by rangers from the local community employed by Big Life Foundation. But WildlifeDirect board member Scott Asen wanted to explore a more effective solution. The problem, he argued is that Tim raid farms. We have to find a way to keep him out of farms. That way, saving an elephant is also a way to help local communities.

Scott personally put up the money to finance the collaring and subsequent monitoring operations. Save The Elephants then donated the collar allowing us to allocate even more funds for monitoring. After months of planning, and one aborted attempt, the team met in Amboseli on Friday 9 September to get it done.

Collaring an elephant like Tim is a big operation and everyone was assigned their roles: one team of vets, led by Dr. Isaac Lekolol was in charge of the collaring, another was assigned the task of collecting biometric data, Big Life monitored the entire operation from a light airplane and a helicopter was on standby. KWS rangers were in charge of keeping order, and the rest of us were there to observe and assist.

The big day

Early on Saturday morning we met up to get the latest on Tim’s movements in the night. Big Life rangers had stayed awake all night to monitor him. Tim, together with two other bull elephants, Craig and his nephew Townsend, were grazing in area of scrubland near the National Park boundary.

The rangers ordered most of the cars, and the local people who had turned up to see what was going on, to pull up and wait a safe distance away. Three cars with the vets and other key personnel moved slowly over the bumpy bushy terrain towards the elephants. The elephants looked up and, with no sign of panic, started to move away. A tense game of cat and mouse—played out in slow motion—followed. As we drove towards them, the elephants moved away. We couldn’t get close enough for the vet to get a clear shot. Once the dart had delivered the sedative we had to make sure that Tim remained in an open area.

With the assistance of a couple more cars we nudged Tim towards an open area and away from his two companions, who went off in a huff. They knew something was up, and they didn’t like it! Then we slowly circled around closer to Tim, cutting off his escape route when he tried to follow them.

I was in a car about 100 meters away when I saw the vets get out of another car and start to walk towards him. That’s when I knew that the dart had been fired and found its mark. Soon the vets were at his side, tiny black figures silhouetted against his huge grey bulk. Tim stood motionless for more than 7 minutes, while we watched and waited. Then his back legs gave way and he slowly crumpled backwards into a seated position. It was essential to get Tim on his side for the collaring operation and the vets rushed in to push him over. Only then could we start putting on the collar.

Luckily STE had realised that none of the collars they had were going to be big enough to go round Tim’s neck, and they had joined two together to get it to fit. Tim was the biggest elephant they had ever collared, they told me afterwards.

While the professional went to work, measuring his height and length, monitoring his health vitals, and putting on the collar, the other onlookers were invited to come closer and take a look, under watchful supervision of the KWS rangers. We stood in awe: Tim was so huge!

Three local women, representatives the Oltome Nadupo Women’s Company, a handicraft and trading company supported by WildlifeDirect, came over. They touched his skin and his tusks. They were fascinated by his toenails, as big as saucers. Although they had lived in vicinity of elephants all their lives, this was the first time they had touched one.

Then we were asked to move away and the most critical moment of all had arrived, when the antidote would be administered to wake Tim up again. Due to his age, there were serious concerns that he might not recover at all; this had happened before with older bulls. I looked around and the tension on everyone’s faces—but especially on Kitili Mbathi’s—was plain to see.

What people said

Afterwards, when Tim had walked off as if nothing in particular had happened, the KWS chief admitted how nervous he had been:

This was my first witness of a collaring of an elephant and I must say that it was an amazing experience. However, there were concerns, because of his age whether he would be able to resuscitate after we put him down but as you can see he is up and gone and it’s been very successful.

In response Riana Lemalon the Chairlady of Oltome Nadupo said:

Today is a joyful day and I am excited and thank God for getting the opportunity to be this up close with an elephant. We care for them from a distance but today on behalf of Oltome Nadupo [the company name means ‘successful elephant’ in the Maasai language], we have been fortunate to be involved in the collaring exercise.”

Sitat Sukare, another company representative expressed the hope that the collar would help reduce human–elephant conflict in the area:

It is now easy for communities to identify Tim and I expect that we will be forewarned of Tim’s whereabouts and be trained in how the app and collar works. We value elephants just as much as we value our cows and, in our tradition long ago, elephants were considered women’s cows.

Backing up these sentiments, Richard Bonham of Big Life Foundation said:

I’m just so happy that it turned out so well because there were a few people who said that it was dangerous. For us in Big Life the main thing now is that we’ve got an extra tool to monitor Tim and address human wildlife conflict in a more advanced and technological way.

Later that day…

In the afternoon, Katito Sayiale of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and I went out to find him after a tour guide told us that he had just spotted Tim in the Park. We asked if he noticed anything different, and the guide replied: “No, not really. He was calm. Oh, and he had a radio collar. We knew about the plan but we didn’t know that it had happened”.

Afterwards, when I spoke to the tourists he was with and told them about Tim, they were thrilled to learn that they were first people to have seen him with his new shanga (necklace).

On our way towards where Tim had been seen, we came across the two other bulls, Craig and Townsend, who we had pushed away from him during the darting. They were walking purposefully and we were sure they were looking for their companion. So we followed, and there Tim was, standing quietly in the shade of an acacia tree. Townsend went quickly to his uncle, whom he clearly adores, and reached out with his trunk to greet him affectionately and then, cautiously, inspect the new collar.

Townsend was clearly ill at ease, but Tim seemed to reassure him. “I can live with it”, he seemed say, “let’s get on with life”. Then the three elephants moved away. We heard that later on they turned up at the Amboseli Trust research camp. The researchers were worried that their old friend Tim would hate them for the part they played in the collaring. But Tim was magnanimous, and acted as if nothing had happened.

Our long day was over. Tim was none the worse for his experience and, we hope, safer than before. But this is not the end. In fact it’s just the beginning for teams assigned to make use of the technology to keep Tim out of farms, and safe from poachers.

Summing up

Our aim in collaring Tim was not just to protect an individual elephant. We wanted to shine a light on the big tuckers. These iconic animals play a key role our ongoing campaign to win over hearts and minds of people all over the world, and local people on the ground, in support of elephant and wildlife conservation.

The urgency of our campaign was thrown into stark relief the next day when it was reported that another bull had been discovered dead in a nearby ranch, killed by poachers for his tusks. The bull could not be identified because of the state of the carcass. He died anonymously without much grieving. I couldn’t help feeling acutely aware that this could have been Tim. Gone without us even knowing it was him.

We know we can’t collar all our elephants, but hope that by keeping Tim alive he will serve as an inspiration in the search for sustainable solutions to the multiple threats facing elephants: poaching, human wildlife conflict and lack of space caused by habitat destruction.

I will leave the last words to Scott Asen, the benefactor who made it all possible:

To collar a majestic wild animal so that he can live out his life in peace and safety is an unnatural act. To build fences where farms have been allowed to encroach on historic migration paths in order to protect the lives of both settlers and animals—those, too, are unnatural acts. But if that’s what it takes to protect our wildlife, I support and encourage all of it.

Human population growth along with wholesale abuse of the environment have put us at war with wildlife. And it is a war that, if humanity isn’t careful, we will win. But it will be a tragic and Pyrrhic victory of epic proportion. Very simply, I worry that a world without animals will be a world we won’t want to—or be able to—live in. The last stop on the road to our own extinction.

Postscript, 16 September: Since being collared, Tim has rejoined his friends and has been observed peacefully in Amboseli National Park

Elephant Tim wakes up with a tracking collar round his neck after the successful operation to fit the collar in Amboseli, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Elephant Tim tries to shake off his newly fitted tracking collar in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Frank Pope of Save The Elephants explains to Maasai women how a mobile phone is used to see the location of an elephant fitted with a tracking collar, in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Elephant Tim in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Elephants Tim (left), his nephew Townsend (centre) and Craig in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016, during operations to fit a tracking collar to Tim. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Kenya Wildlife Service vets push elephant Tim to the ground as he collapses from the effect of a tranquiliser dart, during operations to fit a tracking collar to the elephant in Amboseli, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paula Kahumbu/WildlifeDirect

A tracking collar is fitted to elephant Tim in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Kenya Wildlife Service Director General Kitili Mbathi and Paula Kahumbu with elephant Tim after the elephant was fitted with a tracking collar in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Kenya Wildlife Service Director General Kitili Mbathi looks on anxiously during operations to fit a tracking collar to elephant Tim in Amboseli National Park on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Two Maasai women look on during operations to fit a tracking collar to elephant Tim in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildlifeDirect

Elephant Tim walks off after having a tracking collar fitted in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, on 10 September 2016. Photograph: Paul Obuna/WildifeDirect