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Spotting A ‘big Tusker’: Is It Getting Easier Or Are We Just Getting More Knowledgeable About Their Movements?

Spotting a ‘big tusker’: Is it getting easier or are we just getting more knowledgeable about their movements?

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A few weeks ago, we published an article that featured a statistical breakdown of our operations here at Tsavo Trust. This article clearly showed our growing influence in the Tsavo Conservation Area, since our founding in 2013.

In this post, we are going to dive deeper into these statistics in a bid to answer a key conundrum that shapes our operations. Are ‘big tusker’ sightings becoming more frequent, perhaps due to the increased confidence of the ‘big tuskers’, or are we at Tsavo Trust becoming more adept at being able to find these majestic animals?

An important consideration in this investigation will be the number of ‘big tuskers’ in Tsavo year-by-year. We already know the exact figures for how many big tuskers there are in Tsavo and they are as follows:

Big Tuskers In Tca

Although there is some variation to these numbers, they simply do not match up with the variation in numbers we have for ‘big tusker’ sightings. Those numbers look like this:

Average Big Tuskers

In 2013, the year we started operations, we were clearly just getting on our feet in Tsavo and many of the ‘big tuskers’ we were protecting remained elusive, even to us. However, by 2014, we were already finding our feet and over the last 3 years we were averaging around 1 sighting per day.

The year 2015 was an anomaly as we averaged 1.5 sightings per day – that is 50% more than we averaged in 2020. Interestingly, 2015 was also quite a low year for elephant carcasses found, as shown by this table:

Total Carcasses

This suggests that 2015 was a bountiful year for elephants with low mortality rates across the entire populations and therefore it is likely that the ‘big tuskers’ were more active and, importantly, more visible in this year.

What is driving increased elephant sightings?

There are several theories for the steadily increasing number of elephant sightings. It is our job to discuss and analyse these theories to try and find out what we are doing well and what can be improved. Anything we can learn about elephant behaviour will help not only with their protection and surveillance but also with coming up with new ways of ending human-wildlife conflict – one of the key killers of elephants.


More efficient surveillance

The first theory is that our ground patrol teams, and Super Cub pilots are learning the terrain and the environment and are therefore able to navigate Tsavo more efficiently and so cover more of the TCA’s elephant hotspots before having to return to base and refuel.

Avgas, the fuel that powers our Super Cub, is a valuable commodity and does not come cheap. Our pilots need to make their Avgas supplies go as far as possible and this efficiency may have led to more efficient surveillance of the ‘big tuskers’.

Learning the habitat and territory

This theory is heavily linked with the idea of more efficient surveillance. At Tsavo Trust, we know elephants like to roam over huge distances – many of them up to 50 miles a day. This makes them quite hard to track. However, that doesn’t mean our ‘big tuskers’ don’t have their favourite spots – places they like to hang out.

Our pilots and ground crew, with the help of KWS, are becoming more and more adept at locating these spots and so sightings have increased.


Elephants have fantastic memories

Elephants have exceptional memories, and they are extremely intelligent animals. Our Super Cub pilots have noticed an alarming and heart-warming phenomenon occur over the last few years of surveillance. It seems that some of the ‘big tuskers’ have come to recognise the distinct sound of the Super Cub and we at the Trust like to think they associate this sound with protection. Although this cannot be proved, it also cannot be disproved either.

There is one story of a bull elephant that was pierced in the side by a spear from a scared farmer and, remembering something from many years before, it wandered straight into a conservation campsite to seek treatment.

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