It’s pretty cool that elephants continue to be a global sensation. People, everywhere, are really really into them. And they have been for centuries.
In Hinduism, one of the world’s major religions, elephants are depicted with three different deities: Lakshmi, Shachi, and Indra (the king of the Devas). On Sri Lanka they are included in the Kandy Esala Perahera, an annual procession honoring the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. And for Muslims, the Prophet Muhammed was born in 570 CE, the Year of the Elephant.
In the US culture, elephants make quite the appearance too. In 1941, Disney released Dumbo, their fourth animated film, which ended up being their biggest financial success of the decade. (I personally would argue that Dumbo’s mom, Mrs. Jumbo, is the greatest animated mother of all time.) An elephant is also the mascot of the Oakland Athletics baseball team as well as the Republican National Party.
But in Africa, they are paid the greatest homage of all. There, people risk their lives to protect them.
With the support of the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Kenya Forest Service, local communities, and even a few non-government organizations, the Mount Kenya Trust has been fighting to protect the mountain’s habitat and wildlife, including its elephant population, since 1999.
The trust covers the Mount Kenya National Reserve, an area of approximately 1,300 square miles (that’s about 2,100 square kilometers for all you metric system users out there), located on the equator. Established in 1949, it benefits more than 10,000 people, supports 40 schools, and boasts 22 employees. It was listed as a Biosphere Reserve in 1978 and as a World Heritage Site in 1997.
Not only does the land directly affect the ecosystems of the Tana and Ewaso Ngiro rivers (two bodies of water that provide electricity and money making opportunities to the Kenyan economy), it’s also home to a number of protected animal species, including more than 2,000 elephants.
Needless to say, protecting this land, and these animals is important. In addition to other initiatives (including the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor Project which allows elephants to safely follow historical migration patterns), the Trust, together with the Kenya Wildlife Service, has established a Mounted Horse Patrol Anti-Poaching Unit.
Recruited from communities that neighbor the reserve, the unit keeps an eye on wildlife and helps educate the local communities about the benefits of conservation. Currently, the team consists of a handful of wildlife officers, mostly from communities in Meru County. They patrol a high-altitude zone of Mount Kenya, located between the areas of Meru and Sirimon, that has become a breeding ground for poachers. The patrolmen roam the land on Ethiopian ponies*, a breed known for their ability to manage high altitudes and rough conditions.
*In the interest of total transparency, I must mention that two of their ten ponies were donated by Charlie Wheeler, an accomplished farmer and conservationist in Ngare Nadre, the corridor located between Mount Keyna and Lewa Conservatory.
The Mounted Horse Patrol Anti-Poaching Unit is the first of its kind…and it seems to be working. Since its inception, there has been a decrease in poaching and snaring (many smaller animals are also trapped and sold as bush meat). Hundreds of traps and snares (about 30%) have been removed. In addition, ivory, as well as other protected wildlife products, have been recovered.
Arrests have also been made. Considering how advanced poachers have become (a ton are supported by criminal organizations), this is no easy feat. Many of these men carry weapons, making the patrolmen’s jobs especially dangerous. But thanks to the IEF (International Elephant Foundation), the men of the Horse Patrol Unit are trained and armed, equipped to handle the most difficult of situations.
There are other positives to their presence as well. The mounted men report bushfires, logging, and illegal livestock. They record critical information and surveillance data. If animals are ensnared, they are quickly found and cared for. It is also said that their presence helps promote local safety.
Protecting the habitat means protecting the animals that live within it…which can be dangerous. On the black market in 2014, poachers were making $1,500 for every pound of ivory sold. Considering two male elephant tusks can weigh about 250 pounds, each successful kill can earn them around $375,000. For that much money, many will kill more than an elephant to get what they want.
So why do the men of the Horse Patrol Unit risk their lives to protect the elephants and the Kenyan land they occupy? Well, according to Patrolman Martin, it’s because the experience has been life-changing. His work has exposed him to unfamiliar areas of Mount Kenya, giving him a deeper understanding of the land and its animals. In fact, most of the patrolmen mention that the work has changed them for the better, despite the inherent danger.
And like I mentioned earlier, their hard work is paying off. Since 2013, poaching is down 70%. Can you imagine if the team was twice the size? Can you imagine how much ground they would cover and how many elephants (as well as other animals) they would save?
Simon Gitau, the Mount Kenyan Senior Warden, is dedicated to expanding the Horse Patrol Unit. He has even pledged to add armed rangers to the team.
But he can’t do it alone. The program is 100% donor funded, meaning they need your help. Some say money makes the world go around…but for the elephants of the Mount Kenya National Reserve, a small donation will help save their lives. Literally.