On Mt Elgon, Kenya, the elephant habitat is supposed to be safe. The National Park and forest reserves are supposed to be protected – and, for the most part, thanks to the efforts of the Kenya Wildlife Service Warden and rangers, they are.
The Mt Elgon Elephant Monitoring (MEEM) Team have been tracking the Elgon elephants with Born Free’s support since 2001. However, a new threat has emerged – commercial charcoal gangs are chopping down trees to turn them into profitable fuel that is widely used across Africa.
World-renowned conservationist and Born Free Wildlife Consultant, Ian Redmond OBE, and the rest of the MEEM team were observing more than 40 elephants crossing a glade some 150m away. The last one to cross, however, turned and charged towards them, ears out as if displaying. Ian realised the elephant was gaining on him and not wanting to be hit from behind, turned and – still running backwards - put his hands up to the elephant’s face. The impact sent Ian into a high-speed backward roll, between the elephant’s front legs as he ran over Ian – kicking him like a football. The rangers fired three shots into the air and the elephant fled, almost certainly saving Ian’s life.
Feeling battered and bruised - but alive - Ian lay on the grass as the rangers made a stretcher, carrying him to the Born Free Land Rover and taking him to the nearest hospital. Amazingly, Ian had no broken bones but a partially dislocated shoulder and what the doctors called ‘soft tissue damage’.
So why did it happen?
It has been only two years since a spate of ivory poaching on Elgon. Perhaps the herd were reminded of these attacks and reacted accordingly. It is 40 years since Ian first began working on foot in African forests and after countless elephant encounters - he had never seen behaviour like this. It is indicative of the threats faced by both the elephants and their forest, making the work of the MEEM Team all the more important. It also shows the dangers that rangers and trackers face, not only from poachers and charcoal gangs but from angry elephants that have not yet learned that some humans are on their side!
Born Free is determined, with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Forest Service, to bring greater protection to Mt Elgon’s elephants and forests.
The initiative supported by Kitili Mbathi, Director General of the Kenya Wildlife Service said:
"What an incredible encounter, it makes compelling reading and I am pleased that Ian survived to tell the story. We must eliminate the charcoal burning and hopefully the appeal will generate some funding to help us in our efforts to protect the Mt Elgon forest and it's elephants"
Phase One: £20,000 will secure funding for the next three years of MEEM Team operations - including upgrading equipment for data transfer using smart phone, with GPS, data-sending and camera, for each of the four teams. Working with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Forest Service will allow Born Free to gather data on charcoal kilns and tree felling, as well as elephant protection action by relevant authorities.
Phase Two: £25,000 will fund an investigation into the charcoal trade on Mount Elgon and elsewhere in Kenya. Working with relevant authorities and local partner NGOs, Born Free will assess samples of charcoal from outlets in Kitale, Nairobi and other Kenyan cities using microscopic identification techniques to determine tree species and likely origin. This will help quantify the scale of the trade, the source of the timber, whether protected tree species are being used and, vitally, help target enforcement action to stop the illegal felling of trees for charcoal – which may have been a factor in the behaviour of the elephant that so nearly ended in tragedy for Ian.