In yet another climate-related disaster, the Save the Elephants research facility and its sister Elephant Watch Safari Camp, both located in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, have been completely destroyed by unexpected flooding of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, along with seven other neighboring safari lodges.
On March 4, at approximately 5am, “a wall of water akin to a tsunami surged through Elephant Watch Camp, catching tourists and staff unawares and sweeping away tents and facilities,” STE said in a statement. “Camp owner Oria Douglas-Hamilton and guests managed to escape to safety by climbing to higher ground.” The same flood hit and decimated Save the Elephants’ research facility downriver. Researchers and staff there managed to drive to safety, salvaging some computers and cameras, but the flash flood washed away key research data, including more computers and GPS tracking collars, while beds, tents, and other camp infrastructure were submerged in water and mud.”
I happened to have spent a week in Samburu this past January on a reporting assignment, and I’m heartsick now to think of the setback, not just for STE and EWC staff but for elephants and tourism in Samburu.
The STE camp was founded by Iain Douglas Hamilton, a British biologist and one of the world’s foremost authorities on elephants. He and his remarkable wife Oria, who was born and raised in Kenya, were key witnesses to the ivory poachers’ slaughter of elephants in the 1980s that reduced the continent’s elephant population from an estimated 1.3 million in 1979 to perhaps as few as 400,000 today. In the 1970s and 80s, the couple spent months of each year flying in small planes over the 37 elephant range states conducting an aerial census that revealed the extent of the loss and helped lead to the CITES 1989 international ivory ban.
Since then, STE has conducted research that has improved our understanding of elephant behavior, which is influenced more than ever by the rising human population and the loss of elephant habitat. GPS collar tracking of elephants in Kenya, Mali, and other countries has revealed that elephants, intelligent creatures with a lifespan similar to own, understand the risks of crossing human inhabited areas. (They run, don’t walk, at night through areas where elephants have been poached for ivory or shot as crop raiders). What might seem like minutiae has critical importance. For example recent studies show that elephants naturally fear African honey bees, suggesting that the mere addition of beehives to “elephant proof” fencing can make crops protection more effective.
STE’s work was all the more relevant because CITES has revisited its ban on ivory sales. In 2008, CITES permitted South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, whose elephant populations have been steadily increasing, to sell stockpiled ivory (collected from natural deaths in game parks) to Japan and China. Since then, poaching has increased across much of the elephant’s northern range; the last six elephants in all of Sierra Leone were shot late last year, and Senegal may also have no elephants left. In its next meeting of signatories March 13-26 in Doha, Qatar, CITES will consider a proposal from Tanzania and Zambia, which also have healthy elephant populations, to sell their ivory stockpiles. Kenya and 13 other range states, meanwhile are calling for a blanket 20 year ivory sale moratorium, arguing that no elephant population is really safe from the combination of rising ivory demand, local corruption, and escalating black market prices.
For travelers, the loss of Elephant Watch Camp is equally devastating. In 2001, Oria decided to create a camp a short drive along the river from the STE camp. Her aim was two-fold: To be able to spend time closer to Iain, and to offer guests (and potential STE donors) the chance to learn about elephants from the local people who live with them and study them.
The six-tented camp was one of the loveliest I’ve stayed at during two decades of traveling across Africa. Apart from the tent canvas and decorative Kenyan and Somali textiles, which Oria installed with an artists’ eye, everything was made from locally gathered material, including the beds, chairs, and settees constructed from dead branches along the river that elephants themselves had knocked down. The young Samburu warriors, born in local manyattas and recruited and trained by the Douglas Hamiltons as camp staff, researchers and safari guides, were knowledgeable, enthusiastic, articulate, providing insights not just into ecosystems, but the Samburu culture and its relation to nature. Thanks to STE research, EWC guides not only described the elephant life in general terms, but as an epic narrative, identifying each member of a family group by name and life story. The loss of employment in the flood is all the more tragic, as it follows northern Kenya’s worst drought in decades, which killed as many as 90 per cent of Samburu goats and cattle.
Although it is too early to assess the cost of the damage, STE Operations Manager Lucy King expects it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild just the research facility. “Ominously,” she says, ” Rain clouds hang over Samburu and more heavy rains are expected as early as this evening at what is only the start of Kenya’s rainy season.”