It began with a prayer; a collective plea for safety and good luck. A group of conservationists from Save the Elephants (STE) readied themselves to tranquilize a 12,000-lb. elephant from a helicopter. It’s a tense experience requiring focus, teamwork, and cool heads. Once the elephant was darted and unconscious, the team—highly experienced, but still full of adrenaline—raced to the sleeping giant, slipped a large monitoring collar around her neck, then slowly revived her (while quickly getting out of her way). Collaring wildlife is common in conservation, usually it’s done to help scientists learn more about an animal’s behavior and movements. This particular elephant was one of ten collared for a study highlighting elephant movements around highways and railways, a growing conservation challenge as populations boom across Africa. Information gathered from these ten individuals will benefit 13,000 other elephants in this part of Kenya.
While highways and railways help people get to and from their destinations more efficiently and quickly, they do the opposite for elephants. Infrastructure developments can bisect territory and restrict wildlife mobility. It is imperative that wildlife crossing structures, effective fences, and underpasses are adequate for allowing easy movement for elephants. If construction goes up too fast without these elements, elephants can get disoriented and lost, often ending up in densely populated areas, making human-elephant conflict more likely to occur.
Save the Elephants, working with the Kenya Wildlife Service, is monitoring elephant movements to understand and mitigate the effects of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway, the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, and other infrastructural developments. Data they collect shows where elephants are impeded by roads or rails, indicating to STE where to strategically place underpasses, leave culverts open, and establish elephant corridors. There are still challenges to overcome—areas where elephants have no choice but to cross busy roads and risk being hit by cars—but data gathered from this project will help reduce these risks and can be used to inform future projects. With STE’s recommendations wildlife mobility can be considered before infrastructure goes up, so elephants can get to their destinations as easily and safely as people do.