The impact of the SGR on the mega-herbivore in the last of its stronghold – the mighty Tsavo

Published The East African Nation media -31 Dec 2016-6Jan 2017

Caption above – Elephant crossing under the bridge of the new SGR crossing Limo Elisha

Under the searing sun of the Tsavo East National Park, a herd of elephants as red as the soil browse near the newly constructed standard gauge railway cutting across the 13,747 square kilometres park.

This section of the railway line near the park’s Manyani Gate is raised on a steep embankment to attain the gradient for the high-speed trains for the SGR. A 70-meter-wide and five-meter-high underpass in the embankment allows the mega herbivore to move to and fro from the adjoining 9,065-square-kilometer Tsavo West National Park – making the two parks the largest protected elephant park.

Until this steep embankment of the SGR was built a year ago, the elephants of Tsavo crossed the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway and the century-old railway line from anywhere they wished along the 137-kilometer span of the highway and rail that ran through the two parks.

An elephant crossing the old Meter gauge railway
An elephant crossing the old Meter gauge railway Copyright Limo Elsiha

There are more images from Save the Elephants, the team monitoring the elephants like elephants stuck by the side of the high embankment after crossing the road from Tsavo West to enter Tsavo East. They now have to walk along the impenetrable barrier until they find one of the six underpasses to cross into Tsavo East.

It’s the beginning of a new era for this magnificent creature.

Collared to Map

Tsavo lies at the crossroad of elephant migrations between Tsavo East and TsavoWest. The elephants then migrate from Tsavo West into Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania or from Tsavo West into the Chyulu Hills and beyond into Amboseli and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

On the other side, elephants also migrate from Tsavo East to the coast into Arabuko Sokoke forest near Malindi or to the Shimba Hills near the famed South Coast but these migrations are becoming increasingly difficult due to expanding human settlements blocking the migratory routes.

“In March 2016, Save the Elephants collared 10 elephants – that is five matriarchs leading five groups and five big bulls to monitor them so that we can see how the elephants are coping with the SGR and the designated underpasses and also to understand how the SGR is affecting movement and distribution patterns of the elephants,” tells Dr Ben Okita of STE – a veteran wildlife research scientist with more than 20 years specializing in Africa’s mega herbivores – the rhino and the elephant.

STE founded by Dr Ian Douglas Hamilton who pioneered elephant research in the 1950s has been commissioned by Kenya Wildlife Service to monitor the elephants.

The SGR being the first project of its kind in Africa passing through a national park, STE’s aim is to generate information that could help with better management of underpasses and connectivity between landscapes for elephants during migrations and also the sustainability of such structures through community-owned land bordering the park.

“This is the first mega-structure of its kind in Africa and the Tsavo ecosystem provides us with the opportunity to study the effect of the SGR vis-à-vis the elephants and the ecosystem and see how it can be replicated in projects across Kenya and the continent.”

It’s the century of change – similar to the start of the 20th century when the first railway lines were constructed on the continent.

The only difference this time is that the variables are different.

At the start of the 20th century there were vastly fewer people, enormous herds of wildlife and no fences, roads or rails to interfere with migrations that had been happening since the dawn of time. The only hitch were the traders who moved in slow-drawn caravans in search of ivory, rhino horn, other wildlife trophies and slaves.

The first modern infrastructure on this side of the continent that was the Uganda Railway built between 1896-1901 saw things speed up – poachers and wildlife smugglers could kill their quarry faster with modern guns that replaced poison-tipped spears and load them on train and trucks for export through the ports and airports at a rate never seen before. On the positive side, the UR heralded in development – opening up what was dubbed ‘the Dark Continent’.

Changing Landscapes

It is inevitable that African landscapes are going to change – with new infrastructure to meet the demands of rapidly changing times. Africa, so far, is in a league of its own for it is the only continent that still boasts of mega-herbivores and big cats in the wild.

Wildlife conservationists argue that change does not have to spell doom for the last of the wild if wildlife is factored in the development plans right from the beginning – which calls for dialogue and trust.

“Spatial planning is only possible if you have a good picture of how wildlife moves,” continues Okita. “And this is where STE comes in to provide the central government and county governments the movement patterns of the elephants.

“For example, an elephant broke a chain link fence that the Chinese had built along a section of the SGR in Tsavo worth millions of shillings. This could have been totally avoided if we had been working together from the beginning. We could have advised what sort of fences to erect.

“Instead of involving conservation organizations latter in development plans, in reality involving these organizations only improves things. In the case of SGR through Tsavo, better communication could have helped with planning better bridges and underpasses.

“Our data will be useful to the Kenya National Highway Authority for it to plan better roads and passes – whether under or over – for both wildlife and people.

“Hopefully, our recommendations will be taken to make appropriate adjustments – and at the end of the day the tax-payers money is not wasted.”

There are increasingly more roads and railroads passing through areas in wildlife-rich areas such as northern Kenya with the LAPSET project and counties like Narok home to the world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve.

The crucial factor is that the connectivity between the parks and ecosystems be sustained, and animal corridors and dispersal areas be left opened.

“This is only possible with better information on animals movements,” states Okita.

More info on the SGR and Elephants  

It is estimated that the new SGR will reduce truck traffic by 30 per cent – that is three trucks fewer for every ten trucks. In the near future, the highway and other major roads may have to be widened.

Since STE began recording data this March, eight elephants have been killed linked to the SGR-embankment barriers. In the recent years, the average annual kill from road carnage was two elephants. On a national scale as more infrastructure projects happen – unless they are properly planned – casualties could increase dramatically.

The collared elephants show them move from Tsavo East to TsavoWest and then into Mkomazi (Tanzania) to Chyulu and back into Tsavo West to continue the circular pattern of migration.

To fuel their huge bodies for energy, elephants eat for up to 18 hours a day – and hence the adage – an elephant’s life is one long meal – and the need to constantly move in search of new pastures allowing the land to regenerate. It is a century-old cycle.

Tsavo Tuskers

Some good news – recent data shows there are more births than deaths which means numbers are increasing coupled with few poaching incidents thanks to improved law and enforcement.

The last elephant census in 2014 showed between 12000 and 14000 in Tsavo ecosystem – an increase from an all-time low of 6000 in the 1980s when mega-poaching was at its height. The next elephant census is in 2017.