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Extra Protection for the Last Giants of the Elephant World: Tsavo Trust’s ‘Big Tusker Project’ working in support of KWS

Working in close collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and alongside research and conservation partners including Save The ElephantsTsavo Trust monitors the elephant populations of Tsavo, with a specific emphasis on the large ‘tuskers’. Richard Moller, Tsavo Trust’s Chief Executive Officer, carries out this monitoring, with the indispensable help of our Super Cub light aircraft. In such a huge, remote place as Tsavo, aircraft are vital conservation tools, providing an additional ‘eye in the sky’.

As well as contributing to scientific data collation, the reports transmitted real-time from Tsavo Trust’s aircraft can assist KWS in mounting an appropriate response to any identified threats to Tsavo’s elephants. To that end, the KWS team on the ground has warmly welcomed Tsavo Trust’s participation in their conservation efforts. Considering the sheer size and geography of the area being surveyed, no single effort can ever be a ‘catch-all’ solution – as was so tragically demonstrated by the Tiva poaching incident and the death of Satao – but the Tsavo Trust aircraft can make a measurable difference to the safety of elephants in Tsavo – and so can you by helping us to do this job.

In response to the escalating poaching situation, Tsavo Trust has started extending our Big Tusker Project to include a ground follow-up capacity to work with wildlife departments, protected area managers and communities to assist their efforts to defend elephants against ivory poachers and traffickers. In particular, working alongside KWS in a supporting role, we boost patrol numbers on the ground, locate elephant carcasses, determine the cause of death and recover tusks, as well as locating poachers’ platforms, hides, camps and illegal charcoal kilns, and assisting to patrol Tsavo’s rhino sanctuary and free release zones.

The rust-red elephants of Tsavo…

At over twice the size of Israel, the greater Tsavo Conservation Area is a vast, wild area of awe-inspiring natural beauty and incredible biodiversity. The area boasts Kenya’s single largest population of elephants – famously red in colour due to Tsavo’s rusty earth tones – numbering 11,000 animals at the last census (February 2014). This might sound like a good many elephants – but not when you consider that in the late 1960s there used to be 35,000 in Tsavo, and that the numbers have dropped by 1,500 since the last count three years ago. Among the surviving population is arguably the world’s last viable gene pool of elephants carrying exceptionally large ivory.

The escalating ivory poaching threat

In recent years, the poaching of elephants for their ivory has increased alarmingly across the African continent. One single atrocity accounted for 12 elephants, gunned down in cold blood along Tsavo’s Tiva River in January 2013, indicative of the pressures these magnificent creatures are under across their range in Africa. The incident made headlines and appalled people around the world. Then in May 2014, tragedy struck again, when the iconic Tsavo tusker known as Satao was killed by poisoned arrow. Read our report here. One thing is certain: if Tsavo’s ‘hundred pounder’ elephants are not secured today, they and their gene pool will soon be gone forever.

“Poaching is reducing continent-wide elephant populations by more than 8% annually, although some countries are being hit much harder than others. This level of off-take is unsustainable and will have serious ecological consequences given the keystone role elephants serve in African ecosystems.” — Samuel K. Wasser PhD, Director – Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington

Big Tusker Project/Aerial and Ground Units:

SUMMARY of CONSERVATION ACHIEVEMENTS and IMPACTS – 2015

The table below summarizes number of hours flown, miles covered, individual big “Tuskers” observed, ivory recovered, numbers of fresh and recent elephant carcasses, numbers of poachers camps/blinds/hides and platforms, number of joint TT/KWS arrests and number of aerial responses to armed situations for 2015. 

ActivityHours FlownMiles Covered
Aerial Reconnaissance56741.866
January to December 2015Average 74 mph low level flightFlights carried out jointly with KWS Officers/
Rangers, thus current/live info. relayed to
ground units for action
Monthly Average Average of 47.25 hrs per monthAverage of 3,489 miles per month
January to December 2015
 Big “Tuskers”  No. Observed
January to December 2015 – Iconic Tuskers: 10 different bulls (2 lost in 2015 – IR1 c of d – natural, DA1 c of d unconfirmed)
– Emerging Tuskers: 18 different bulls
– Iconic Cow Tuskers: 7 different cowsTotal: 28 bulls & 7 cows
Ivory recovered  No. Recovered
January to December 201518 tusks recovered from poached, natural and unconfirmed causes of death. All jointly recovered by TT/KWS ground teams
 Elephant carcasses  No. Observed
 Fresh Recent
 January to December 201545 10 
Poachers camps and hides/blinds/platforms  No. Observed
 Fresh Recent
January to December 2015 5 11
Arrests following illegal activity inside the Parks  No. Arrests
  276
(Arrests made by KWS resulting from aerial observations and back up to KWS operations by TT aircraft)
Aerial responses to armed gangs and backup to KWS  No. Responses
 January to December 2015  11
(Both inside and outside the National Parks as back up to KWS)
 Notable Occurences14 Feb 15 – Loss of Tusker DA1, ivory 51kg and 48kg recovered by KWS/TT
April 15 – Pilot Josh Outram started work for TT/BTP
May 15 – record number of individual Tusker sightings in a single month – 74
June 15 – support to combined KWS/Kenya Police operation in the Taita Ranches, with TT aerial back up. Over 100 arrests made
27 July 15 – Locating 6 poached elephants and aerial support to KWS ground teams
16 Aug 15 – Locating 20,000 cattle and bomas for KWS in TWNP – 22 arrests made
14 Nov 15 – deployed new Super Cub aircraft 5Y TTZ to Tsavo Ops
16 Nov 15 – donated new Toyota Land Cruiser vehicle to KWS, TWNP
Several occasions – avgas and diesel donations to KWS specific field Ops
All months – Elephant poaching well down compared to 2014
All months – support to KWS in all TCA rhino areas – TENP, TWNP, CHNP
All months – support to KWS Research and Monitoring Depts. through predator and endangered species observations – ground and air
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