Once we reach a farm, we spend some time walking around seeing where elephants have been. Sometimes we have to go to the neighboring farm before we find crop raiding or dung. Yesterday, outside Kilgoris, it looked like the elephants had mostly been chased and run through the cornfield without eating much or leaving dung. Other animals, like zebra, monkeys and baboons eat crops too, so sometimes the damage is from them.
Tabitha says she was surprised the damage she has found is not more severe. For example, on the first farm I went to the elephants had walked through a barley field. They ate as they walked, sometimes just nipping the tops off the plants and sometimes uprooting the entire plant. The barley plants that have only lost their tops will grow back and still produce seeds, but the plants that are uprooted die and don’t grow back.
When a raided field has been found the search for dung begins. The team, which at this point includes Tabitha, Hannah, Lori, and the scout, fans out to look for dung piles. You can smell them when you start to get close to one. By this time we have gathered an audience of the owners of the farm and neighbors. They help look for dung too.
When a pile is found Tabitha gets to work.
First she measures any intact “boluses” she finds. The dung comes out in large round sections called boluses. By measuring the circumference of a bolus, she can estimate the age of the elephant.
For each dung pile, Tabitha needs three separate samples. The samples are used to test for genetics, stress-hormones, and parasites. She has a very small digital scale she uses to weigh the parasite sample because she needs at least 10 grams to count parasites.
After the samples are collected, Tabitha uses a GPS to mark the location of the farm. Later she will map where the samples were collected.
When all this is done she writes in her field notebook where the sample was collected, the measurements of the bolus, the sample number and any other relevant observations.
Judging by bolus size and footprints, groups of females with young calves have been raiding the farms Tabitha has visited.
If there are no reports of crop raiding in our area tomorrow morning, we will go into Maasai Mara National Reserve to collect samples from elephants that have not been crop raiding. Ultimately Tabitha will compare the samples from raiding elephants and non-raiding elephants.