In Conversation: Francis Kago, Saving Meru’s Giants

Following our recent Hope for Elephants appeal launch, we spoke with Francis Kago, Project Officer for our Saving Meru’s Giants programme in the heart of the Meru Conservation Area, Kenya – dedicated to protecting elephants in the wild.

Two men in Born Free uniforms tracking elephants in the wild

Francis Kago and Moses in the field, monitoring elephant populations © Will Burrard Lucas

Why did you become a conservationist? 
I was born and raised along the boundary of Lake Nakuru National Park, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Growing up here led me to study Wildlife Management and later work with several conservation organisations in Kenya. The most rewarding aspect of being an elephant conservationist is the direct impact I have on protecting these magnificent creatures and their habitats from the threats they face, including poaching, habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. My work involves raising awareness, conducting research, and collaborating with various stakeholders to ensure the survival of these iconic animals for future generations.

Why are elephants important ecologically? 
Elephants are a keystone species, and they play a crucial role in their ecosystems. They shape and maintain their habitats by creating clearings, dispersing seeds through their dung, and modifying vegetation. Their activities support biodiversity by creating diverse habitats that benefit other plant and animal species. Additionally, elephants’ presence can help maintain the balance between different plant and animal populations, contributing to the overall health and resilience of the ecosystem.

Tell us about a typical day? 
A typical day involves a mix of fieldwork, research, community engagement, and administrative tasks. The day often starts as early as five in the morning, heading out into the field to track elephant herds, observing behaviour, and collecting data on movement patterns and social dynamics. I am proud that one of the 325 elephants that have been individually identified and added to our database has been named Kago after me. Having an elephant database is crucial to inform effective conservation strategies, but also tells us the story of every individual.

Back at the office, I spend time analysing the data collected, updating databases, reviewing research findings, collaborating with researchers and experts to interpret the information and planning future conservation strategies.

Engaging with local communities is also a crucial part of my work. We often organise workshops, meetings, or educational sessions to raise awareness about elephant conservation and provide guidance on coexisting with elephants peacefully. This involves listening to communities’ concerns and developing solutions that benefit both people and elephants.

Overall, the life of an elephant conservationist is dynamic and diverse, combining hands-on fieldwork, research analysis, community interaction, and behind-the-scenes coordination to protect these majestic animals and their habitats.

What have been some of Saving Meru’s Giants main successes? 
Launched in 2021, through community engagement and education programmes Saving Meru’s Giants has fostered a better understanding of elephants among local communities, leading to reduced human-elephant conflicts and improved coexistence. These successes highlight Born Free’s holistic approach to conservation, combining mitigation measures, habitat restoration, and community involvement to ensure the survival of elephants and their ecosystems.

Currently we are piloting ten farms with ‘beehive fences’ as a simple but effective mitigation measure to reduce crop raiding cases on farms (elephants are afraid of bees!). This also acts as a source of livelihood as the farmers can harvest honey providing a supplementary income. We are also just about to build another 10 beehive fences as the demand from the communities for help continues to grow.

Do you encourage supporters to be hopeful? 
Absolutely, I would wholeheartedly encourage supporters of elephant conservation to remain hopeful for the future. While elephants continue to face significant challenges such as habitat loss, poaching, and human-wildlife conflicts, there have been numerous positive developments in the field of conservation. Innovative approaches, such as community-based conservation initiatives and advanced tracking technologies, are contributing to the safeguarding of elephant populations and their habitats. By supporting these efforts through donations, advocacy, and spreading awareness, Born Free supporters can contribute to a brighter future for elephants. The successes achieved so far demonstrate that with sustained dedication, collaboration, and the engagement of passionate individuals, we can make a positive impact and ensure the survival and thriving of elephants for generations to come.

A wild elephant

Kago, the wild elephant named after Francis Kago © Francis Kago

What has been your most memorable encounter with an elephant? 
The most memorable moment I personally experienced with an elephant was during a dung survey in North Imenti Forest, Meru. We spotted an elephant that had lied down in a bushy area, and we presumed it was sadly dead. After getting close, to our surprise and delight, it suddenly stood up. We ran, as elephants can pose a danger to the team, but luckily the elephant ran in a different direction – it was a close call!

Why are people so important in conservation? 
People and communities play a vital role for several reasons. First and foremost, conservation efforts often overlap with human activities and livelihoods. Local communities are often directly dependent on natural resources for sustenance, income, and cultural practices. By involving these communities in conservation initiatives, their knowledge, insights, and traditional practices can be harnessed to create sustainable solutions that benefit both the environment and their well-being.

Participation of communities also facilitates long-term success of conservation efforts. Conservation projects that respect local values are more likely to gain support and therefore endure over time. In essence, people and communities are integral to conservation because their engagement ensures that efforts are holistic, sustainable, and impactful. Successful conservation not only protects ecosystems and species but also respects and enhances the lives of the people who are interconnected with them.

Do you have any advice for budding conservationists? 
Conservation is a complex field that requires knowledge and skills from various disciplines such as biology, ecology, policy, communication, and social sciences. Embrace opportunities to learn across disciplines, as understanding the interconnectedness of ecological, social, and economic factors is crucial for effective conservation. Collaborate with experts from diverse fields, engage with local communities, and communicate your findings effectively to a broader audience. Remember that conservation is not just about protecting species and habitats, but also about inspiring positive change in human behaviours and attitudes towards nature. By embracing a holistic perspective, you’ll be better equipped to address the multifaceted challenges of conservation and drive meaningful impact.

How can we help elephants? 
Incorporating simple changes into our daily lives can have a positive impact on elephant conservation:

  • Raise awareness: share information about elephant conservation on social media, helping to spread awareness and educate others about the challenges these animals face.
  • Donate to Born Free and other reputable organisations: Support conservation groups and organisations working to protect elephants and their habitats through donations.
  • Support habitat protection: contribute to initiatives that work to preserve natural habitats crucial for elephant survival.
  • Engage in advocacy: contact policymakers to voice your support for stronger wildlife protection laws and international anti-poaching efforts.
  • Promote conservation education: Encourage educational programs in schools and communities to foster an understanding of the importance of elephants in ecosystems.
  • Adopt a lifestyle that benefits the natural environment: Make conscious choices that promote the well-being of all living beings and the environment, aligning with the principles of conservation.

By incorporating these actions into our daily routines, we can collectively make a difference in ensuring the survival and well-being of elephants and their ecosystems.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?  
The most rewarding aspect of my job is the direct impact I have on protecting these magnificent creatures and their habitats. I am always grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the survival of an iconic and endangered species, as well as working towards the well-being of local communities and ecosystems.

Is there anything you’d like to say to supporters? 
To all the wonderful Born Free supporters, I express my gratitude for your continued support. Your dedication and commitment to safeguarding these magnificent creatures and their habitats is truly invaluable. Your support not only preserves a vital species but also contributes to the health of ecosystems and the well-being of local communities. Your contributions make a positive and lasting impact, and your continued advocacy is crucial for a sustainable future for both elephants and our planet. Thank you for being a vital part of this important cause.