A view from the plane
We are in the midst of an elephant poaching crisis, and even in the remotest parts of the Udzungwa Mountains, elephants are not insulated from the threat that emanates from China and her neighbours. Last month, three elephants were killed up in the mountains, and their tusks hacked off. The anti-poaching and intelligence wardens and rangers of the Udzungwa Mountains National Park are an effective force, but like everyone on the frontline in elephant country, they have their work cut out to protect these magnificent beasts from the greed and ignorance of the ivory traders.
Pilot David Moyer briefing his passengers: L to R, Arafat Mtui (UEMC), Joel Masaki (Asst Protection Warden), Pius Mzimbe (Protection Warden), Ponjoli Joram (Ecologist)
With help from the US Fish and Wildlife African Elephant Conservation Fund, we are providing some aerial support to the Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Apart from one day with a helicopter earlier this year, the Park has had no assistance from the air as they try to cover this challenging area of mountains and remote plateaus. So we asked local conservationist and pilot David Moyer, who is based nearby in Iringa and knows Udzungwa like the back of his hand, to do some flights and be on call with his small Cessna plane. While some of the mountainsides are cloaked in sublime closed-canopy rainforest, other extensive areas are drier and more open meaning that much useful information can be gleaned from the air. On a flight last week with both protection wardens and the park ecologist, a previously unknown elephant carcass was spotted, and some extensive fires set by poachers were discovered, prompting a rapid ground response.
Flights until now have made use of the Illovo Sugar Company’s airstrip in the northern Kilombero Valley. Park wardens are now looking into the possibility of creating some small airstrips within the Park, including in remote areas, which would help respond more rapidly to reports of poachers, fires and other threats up in the mountains.
L to R: Trevor Jones (UEP), David Moyer (Pilot), Ponjoli Joram (Park Ecologist), Joel Masaki (Asst. Protection Warden)
In September, I joined a team from the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group on a survey of Noto Plateau, Lindi region. Our chief aim was to confirm the presence of four species in this coastal forest: the Rondo galago, east coast akalat, spotted ground thrush and southern banded snake eagle. But we were also doing a baseline biodiversity survey under the REDD scheme. I was excited to come upon plenty of fresh elephant dung piles brimming with seeds from predominantly two plants: “monkey fruit” with yellow-orange seeds and a long hairy seed (pictured). I’ve received two ideas about what the former may be: Tabernaemontana pachysiphon (but could also be a climber with similar sized fruits, e.g., Saba sp.) or a coastal relative of Commiphora. Please send any ideas!
On one morning, we practically walked into elephants, who warned us with three ground-shaking rumbles and moved off. There were plenty of elephant trails, dug up roots and chewed lianas as well as some attractive grassy clearings – but no water, which means that elephants descend into the farmland below to drink. People burn elephant dung and chili “bricks” to deter them from crops, so our cook was collecting some dried elephant dung to take back with her to the village. These bricks do work but need to be burned frequently.
On our way back to Dar es Salaam, we stopped off in Kilwa to visit WWF’s Cyprian Malima, who works in the Selous-Niassa corridor and is a fundi (expert) in elephant crop deterrents. His formula is a low-tech discovery for which a small amount of chili is required: he mixes the ash of dry/dead Combretum tree species with chili and places this in a flat container from which wind can disperse the mixture; the container can be hung along an elephant trail ~20m from farms (therefore, the ash/chili does not blow onto people’s crops). It is possible that other tree species may work but Combretum has an especially caustic smell.
Malima is also working on documenting elephant movements between the Selous and the coast, including Kilwa mangroves, which elephants are using…FASCINATING! I hope to return soon to set up some camera traps with Cyprian to find out what elephants are doing in the mangroves, where Cyprian’s team has recorded elephant footprints, trails, dung, and tree breakage. Could elephants be attracted to mangroves for salt? Or are mangroves a place of safety?
We are just back from 8 days of elephant dung surveys along and off the Lumemo trail having covered ~70km through mostly miombo woodland and grassland between two forest blocks- Matundu and Mwanihana. It appears that elephants use these areas and habitats just as much as they use the forests. Here, we documented the most extensive mineral digs we have thus far seen in Udzungwa. These sites have deep pits and elephant tusk marks, and piles of both recent and old dung suggesting heavy and frequent use. More soon!
Our survey up to Mwanihana Peak from the base camp “GMP” provided further evidence that Udzungwa elephants climb steep hills. In the montane bamboo zone at ~2000m elevation, we found them eating the reddish bark of what resembles a date palm and is locally known as “ukindu” (identification pending). By coincidence, we shared the camp initially with a Japanese entomologist based at London’s Natural History Museum who informed us that he and his team had been sifting through elephant dung in search for dung beetles along the trails…which meant that our dung measurements weren’t going to be any good this time! But something positive may yet come out of this meeting: Hitoshi may contribute a textbox on dung beetles he found in elephant dung to our chapter on elephants for the Udzungwa book.
We are just back from surveys in high elevation (>2000 m) swamps, forest and bamboo south of Mbatwa and Msosa villages and ranger posts. It is a breathtaking area! The swamps and surrounding environs are an elephant hotspot – we had a higher encounter rate with elephant dung and sign than the other sites we have surveyed in the Udzungwa Mts. As it is dry season, the permanently flooded areas of Ng’ung’umbi may be attracting elephants from other regions, and wallows (such as the one pictured here) abound.
Research assistant Paulo at a high-altitude marsh-side mud wallow
We were fortunate to have great views of a group of seven elephants – a tuskless matriarch, three females with very small tusks, a young bull, and two calves traversing a ridgetop trailnear a patch of montane bamboo!
On our climb up to the swamps from the Mbatwa ranger post however, we spotted two poachers carrying tusk-sized and -shaped loads wrapped in thatch – we failed to get a photograph as they were quick to get away. The TANAPA ranger who was accompanying us called it in but the poachers have not yet been found.
The elephants we saw were nervous, trumpeted and fled. It is disappointing that poachers are accessing such remote areas for ivory! Apart from this encounter with poachers, we recorded only one other human sign during our 12-day trip (a gunshot heard one afternoon). The area has astounding potential to support an abundance of Udzungwa species and we hope that rangers will carefully monitor this very special site.
- Leaving Ng’ung’umbi, July 2010