Elephant in Stealth Mode: A Bull Named Morgan Survives Somali War Zone


NAIROBI, Kenya — Elephant experts in Kenya were excited recently by some rare good news: An elephant had crossed into Somalia — and survived.

Somalia, one of the world’s most war-torn nations, used to be home to thousands of elephants, but they were wiped out during the 1980s and ’90s as the country descended into chaos.

For the first time in decades, researchers said, there is now anecdotal evidence that a small elephant population still exists in Somalia, a finding based on the unusual migration of one big bull named Morgan who journeyed stealthily across the Kenya-Somalia border, most likely to look for a mate.

Fitted with a GPS tracking collar, Morgan was found to have traveled more than 130 miles, demonstrating an uncanny sense of direction — and self-preservation. He moved mostly by night. During the day, he rested in thick bush.

“This is extreme behavior adapted to survive the worst known predator on Earth: man,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the scientists closely monitoring Morgan. “His behavior was a bit like an S.A.S. patrol: Hide by day, keep out of sight and, at night, travel fast,” he added, referring to the British special forces.

Morgan’s long march comes as a welcome reprieve from all the bad news in the pachyderm world. Tens of thousands of elephants have been wiped out in recent years by poachers who kill them for their ivory, which is ultimately smuggled to underground markets in China and other parts of Asia.

Tanzania, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo remain hotbeds for poaching. As time goes on, poachers are becoming more sophisticated, more dangerous and more ruthless.

Just last week, two wildlife rangers in Virunga National Park in Congo were killed by a rebel force notorious for poaching animals, among other abuses.

“These deaths break the unfathomable barrier of 150 rangers lost in a decade here in Virunga,” said Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director. “We cannot sustain these kind of losses.”

The situation for rhinos is just as dire. Last year, poachers killed a record 1,338 rhinos across Africa, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Elephant researchers in Kenya say the Kenya-Somalia border area may be safer for elephants today than it has been for years because of the presence of Kenyan troops in southern Somalia to fight the Shabab militant group. Morgan’s sojourn in Somalia was brief; he spent just a day and a half there before returning to Kenya.

Mr. Douglas-Hamilton, who has been studying elephants for more than 50 years and founded an organization called Save the Elephants, said he was “obsessed” with Morgan’s journey.

“I was so struck by his self discipline,” he said. “He didn’t peek his nose out during the daylight hours.”

He surmised that Morgan, who is in his mid-30s, had made a similar journey years ago and that a faint memory of the route was lodged somewhere deep in his elephant brain.

He was probably looking for a mate, Mr. Douglas-Hamilton said, because “there are not many other motives for him to go on such a safari.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com