A Lone Bull from Kenya Braves Somalia for First Time in 20 Years

Morgan waking up from being darted and collared by NRT and Save The Elephants

Morgan waking up from being darted and collared by NRT and Save The Elephants

An elephant collared in Ishaqbini Conservancy has been tracked by Save The Elephants crossing the border into Somalia, providing the first confirmation in over twenty years that elephants continue to survive in the war-torn African nation.

On 16th February, Morgan, an impressive bull elephant in his mid-30s, began an extraordinary 220 km journey. Since being fitted with a GPS tracking collar in NRT's Ishaqbini Conservancy in December, he’d remained in the same area, but at dusk that night he began moving with purpose. The conservationists and biologists watching his progress became increasingly transfixed with what became one of the most exceptional elephant movements yet recorded.

“He obviously had something in his mind about where he’s going,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, the Kenya-based organisation that tracks elephants to assist the Kenya Wildlife Service and NRT in protecting the nation’s elephants. “That first night he streaked across 20 kilometres of open country, before finding thick bush an hour and a half after dawn. He hid there all day, moving only a couple of kilometres, before resuming his journey at night. He’s adopted this extreme form of survival strategy to traverse one of the most dangerous places for elephants in their African range.”

In the early 1970s an estimated 20,000 elephants lived in the area. No-one knows how many remain today, but even 300 is thought optimistic. Herders living in the Awer Community Conservancy, established by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) six years ago to improve security for local people and wildlife in the area, say that they have begun to see elephants more often. The community conservancy model has been successful in the north of Kenya and the NRT are trying to build on this success on Kenya’s coast. The increased number of elephant sightings may also be due to the presence of the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) which is defending the area against incursions from Al Shabaab, the Somali terror organisation.

“We’re seeing more elephants in Dodori now,” said KWS Company Commander for Lamu District Charles Omondi, referring to a National Reserve in the area. “This may be due to the improved security. We patrol throughout the area with the KDF and also with the Kenya Police Rapid Response Unit. Unlike previous years when there was poaching, last year we didn’t record a single illegally killed elephant.”

In contrast with many elephant populations across eastern and central Africa, Kenya is winning the war against ivory poachers, with births exceeding deaths in all major Kenyan elephant ranges except for the Masai Mara (where conflict between farmers and elephants is resulting in unsustainable levels of killing). In recognition of the importance of reducing demand for ivory in winning the battle for elephants, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta will burn the nation’s entire 137 tonne stockpile on the 30th April, the biggest such ivory destruction in history. The event echoes Kenya’s ivory burn of 1989 that is credited as a major turning point in ending the poaching crisis of that time.

Morgan was collared on the 16th December 2015 during an operation that also saw two other males and three females fitted with tracking devices. He was named after the benefactor who funded the deployment, John Morgan, which was conducted using a helicopter & pilot from the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. For the first two months Morgan remained in the same riverine habitat with the other collared elephants before starting his journey.

“A mature bull like Morgan is not wandering aimlessly. He’s likely following a route that he learnt earlier in his life, one that has been used by elephants for generations,” said Ian Craig, Director of Conservation for the Northern Rangelands Trust. “We’re seeing this for the first time thanks to the tracking, but this is not a one-off. It’s an example of the connectivity that exists across this landscape regardless of borders.”

Douglas-Hamilton said that Morgan’s motives were a fascinating matter for speculation, but that it was most likely to be a search for females: “Although he was among females when collared he never spent much time with them, suggesting that either they were already pregnant or he’d been prevented getting close by another bull. Given Morgan’s stature the latter seems unlikely.” “Evolutionarily speaking the dispersal of bulls serves to avoid inbreeding in a population, but this is an extreme example,” he continued. “Out of all the tracking we’ve done in Africa, these movements – and these circumstances – are exceptional. The wandering of this one bull across the entire expanse of Lamu district, from the Tana river to the Somali border, no-one has seen anything like this before.”

Elephants have been known to survive in the Boni forest on the Kenyan side of the border with Somalia, but the thick cover makes them hard to see. No-one has been able to check on the Somalia side of the border where the last confirmed sighting was in 1995. Morgan’s survival strategy of hiding in thick bush during the day gives hope that the forest may harbour more elephants than previously thought.

About Save the Elephants. Save the Elephants (STE) works to secure a future for elephants in a rapidly changing world. To battle the current surge in ivory poaching, the STE/WCN Elephant Crisis Fund is identifying and supporting the most effective global partners to stop poaching, thwart traffickers and end demand for ivory. Leaders in elephant science, STE also provides cutting-edge scientific insights into elephant behavior, intelligence, and long-distance movement and applies them to the long-term challenges of elephant conservation.