In July 2001 the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) translocated 9 family groups of elephants and 9 individual bulls from Sweetwaters Rhino Sanctuary to the Meru National Park. This became the largest elephant translocation in one operation in eastern, western and Central Africa.
Elephant numbers in most range states have continued to show an upward trend following the international ban on ivory trade and enhanced security. Alongside increasing elephant numbers is the increasing human population that brings with it a high demand for land, both for settlement and other economic activities.
Consequently, habitats are being fragmented, leading to compression of elephant ranges and the emergence of isolated elephant habitats, resulting in increased human-elephant conflicts. This poses two major challenges:
- The need to protect the elephant on the one hand and
- The need to protect human life and property on the other.
In order to mitigate the conflicts and conserve the elephant, KWS has initiated a number of long-term management options. Fencing has been the most important, but this has tended to create ecological islands leading to habitat degradation.
This option is only practical for isolated elephant populations in relatively confined elephant ranges; however, this method cannot always be applied because of the costs involved and the vastness of the areas affected.
Translocation has been adopted as a medium-term strategy to manage problem elephants and confined animals under Problem Animal Control (PAC) strategy. Because of the number of animals involved and those lost under PAC, KWS has shifted its policy away from the method and adopted translocation as an alternative management option while other long term strategies are being pursued.
The translocation was carried out to:
- Reduce the impact of elephants on vegetation as a result of high densities. The entire Laikipia ecosystem has about 2,400 elephants with Sweetwaters alone having 125 elephants in an area of 90 KM2. These densities are beyond the carrying capacity of the sanctuary.
- Reduce human-elephant conflict in the surrounding area by translocating identified problem elephants. This was in response to a call for help from the communities. KWS would like, if possible, people and wildlife to live in harmony. In addition, people who have wildlife living on their land should benefit economically.
- Restock the Meru elephant population. Meru once accommodated over 2,400 individual elephants which were greatly reduced by poaching in the 60s and 70s, to the extent that only 300 elephants remained.
The Elephant Programme which is a unit charged with overseeing elephant issues within KWS fundraised for the operation in which KES 10.5 million was spent The operation was carried out by KWS personnel with assistance from the Kenya Army, which provided two low loader trucks to transport the elephants together with personnel.
The exercise was funded by a number of donors including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) who contributed USD 40,000, the Born Free Foundation who gave USD 12,500, Save the elephants who gave USD 3,900, Ol Pejeta Ranching who gave USD 3,000 and The Humane Society of the United States who contributed USD 4,500. In addition to supplying personnel and equipment, KWS also utilised 2 aircraft at a cost of USD 51,000 in flying time.
In an endeavour to ease pressure and minimize human-elephant conflict, KWS has translocated a total of 109 elephants between 1996 and 2001. In 1996, 26 elephants were translocated from Mwea National Reserve to Tsavo East National Park to help reduce human-wildlife conflict.
In 1997, 10 bulls were translocated from Lewa Downs to Kora National Park. These bulls had sought refuge on the private ranch during the poaching era of the 60s and 70s causing pressure on the already overcrowded vegetation.
This translocation also helped to build up the Kora elephant population, wiped out by poachers in the 70s. In 1999, 30 bulls were translocated from Mwaluganje to Tsavo East National Park in order to reduce pressure on vegetation resulting from a concentration of bulls in the area.
The translocation also helped to reduce the high level of human-elephant conflict in the area and to build up the elephant population in Tsavo which had been reduced from 35,000 elephants in the 70s to 5,000 elephants in the late 80s.
In April 2000, 10 elephants were moved from Ol Pejeta and Lewa Downs to Meru National Park in order to reduce human-elephant conflict. In the same year, 3 bulls were moved from Shimba Hills to Tsavo East National Park to help restock Tsavo and reduce human-wildlife conflict surrounding the Reserve.