GPS saves elephants from slaughter

— -- The call came last week from Kenyan Wildlife Services. Mountain Bull had to die. The adult elephant living near Mount Kenya had absconded from his reserve home to pillage villagers' crops with a posse of other male tuskers. Outraged by the elephants eating their livelihood, a regular occurrence in the last two years, impoverished locals wanted the elephants tracked down and killed.

"Hold on, hold on, we asked them, don't shoot that one," says biologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, a conservation research group based outside Kenya's Samburu National Reserve. Mountain Bull was one of theirs, one of 20 elephants in the region collared with global positioning systems. The researchers track the pachyderm's whereabouts both for science and for salvation, hoping to find ways to let elephants better coexist with people across Africa. Africa was home to 1.3 million elephants three decades ago, but the losses to the ivory trade since have cut that number roughly in half. Kenya, for example, saw its elephant population plummet 85% from 1973 to 1989, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Now it looked like Mountain Bull was going to join the statistics, unless Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues could use their research to plead his case. "We were surprised to hear he had been out with the crop raiders," says remote sensing scientist Jake Wall. "We knew he usually stayed in safe places." A look back at their records confirmed that in fact, that Mountain Bull had travelled to the farmer's fields only once in the last two years — the recent night he was spotted in the fields.

"He must have been taken in by some bad friends that night," says Douglas-Hamilton, with a chuckle. Save The Elephants asked for mercy for Mountain Bull, pointing to his mostly untarnished record, and the wildlife managers let him off the hook. "His life was saved by our radio tracking data." The other elephants, regular pillagers of the poor farmer's fields, won't be so lucky.

With a growing population to feed, and rebounding numbers of elephants in some locales, conflicts between farmers and elephants are a regular occurrence, Douglas-Hamilton says. The same technology the conservation researchers use to track the whereabouts of elephants, highlighted in the September issue of National Geographic, can be used to save the lives of similar delinquent elephants. You may think cellphones are everywhere in your daily life, but that's nothing on Kenya, where even elephants (and some zebras in a related project) carry them. Mountain Bull's leather collar carries a cellphone that text-messages his GPS location every hour. If the team sees him headed for the fields again some night, they can call wildlife managers to send a jeep by to scare him into the woods. Similar avoidance training has taught other elephants to stick to their side of the fence, Hall says.

The team, with tracking software help from the Environmental Studies Research Institute of Redlands, Calif., hopes to spread such lessons across Africa, with similar projects underway in Mali, Gabon and South Africa. "Animal tracking is nothing new but we've really pushed the technology," says Douglas-Hamilton. Plotting elephant travels on Google Maps allows the researchers to follow their charges for years. In particular, tracking has revealed "streaking" undertaken by elephants, long straight-line treks from reserve to reserve sometimes covering dozens of miles in a few days. Preserving these corridors is a key requirement for elephant survival, Douglas-Hamilton suggests, much like corridors for wildlife in the American West. "I gave a talk in Montana on corridors and everyone nodded along and said it was just the same with the grizzlies from Canada," he says.

Mountain Bull, for example, might trek from one safe forest to another 14 times a year, sometimes taking roads right past villages on his way. Other elephants follow highways in Kenya on their trips, Hall says. In Mali, tracking has revealed desert-dwelling elephants following loops hundreds of miles long, following water sources until the dry season drives them all back to one lake. In Mali, one elephant named Bahati that the team saved from a desert hole turned and streaked 40 miles in a day to a lake.

Saving elephants is a complicated business in Africa, because in places such as South Africa, populations are growing. They have too many. The emphasis there must be on re-opening corridors for elephants that keep them away from crops, says Douglas-Hamilton. In Mali and Kenya, the focus shifts to preserving existing corridors to keep hard-hit populations alive.

"Our ultimate mission is better land use planning," says Wall. Tracking elephants gives tremendous insight into how the creatures think before heading for new homes. "They gather together and make these very low-pitched hums for awhile, sort of a 'let's go, let's go,' signal. And then they are off," says Douglas-Hamilton. Elephants are ultimately motivated by three "s"s, he adds. "Sex, sustenance and safety." Not so different from humans, "they are tremendously social creatures," he says. "Just like us."