The idea behind the Tim project is to find a way to minimise these dangerous interactions by changing the elephants’ behaviour.
The armed men are park rangers tasked with keeping him from the crops — and, in the process, saving his life.
It is the dead of the night. The day’s red dust heat has given way to a cooling breeze.
A hundred frogs chirp urgently. Tim and his crew are preparing for another stealth raid.
It is highly dangerous; he has suffered three serious injuries previously. Now there’s a new threat: Armed men.
This is the scene repeated nightly on the eastern fringes of Amboseli National Park in Kenya, close to the border with Tanzania.
Tim is an elephant and one of the continent’s largest tuskers who, along with a group of up to 12 other males, has developed a taste for the tomatoes and maize growing on local farms on the outskirts of the park.
The nocturnal “cat and elephant” game is just one example of a much bigger problem playing out across Africa.
The 2013 Elephants in the Dust report on the crisis in the continent’s elephants estimates that 29 per cent of the animals’ known and possible range is heavily impacted by human development.
The figure is predicted to rise to 63 per cent in four decades.
Human encroachment into elephant habitat inevitably leads to conflict with both animals and people sometimes losing their lives when farmers try to protect their crops.
“Tim’s a very cool guy during the day; I mean, he’s very relaxed,” said Ryan Wilkie, a conservationist with Save the Elephants who goes out with the rangers on the nocturnal interception missions.
“He’s very approachable. At night … he can be a bit more aggressive.”
ARRAY OF TACTICS
Wilkie’s job is to get inside Tim’s head to understand his thinking — to predict what he will do and where he will go next.
Despite an array of tactics to force the elephants back into the park — pepper-pellet guns, thunderflash grenades, a deafening horn and aggressive driving in a solid 4X4 vehicle — Tim often evades his pursuers.
“He’s definitely incredibly smart,” said Wilkie. “I mean I’m enamoured with this elephant — just trying to understand how he’s thinking … He’s certainly a very intelligent and strategic thinker.”
He and the rangers have one important advantage though: Tim has been fitted with a radio collar so they can track his movements.
Using an app produced by Vulcan (a Seattle-based company formed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) and conservation NGO Save the Elephants, they can see when he moves towards the farms to begin a crop raid. That’s when the ranger teams swing into action.
The stakes are high. In the past six months, there have been more than 200 reported crop raids by elephants around Amboseli. So it is understandable that the locals sometimes react aggressively.
Tim has been speared three times in his crop-raiding career.
But Wilkie says local farmers are beginning to recognise the rangers’ efforts to prevent Tim from stealing their crops.
Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Wildlife Direct and Big Life Foundation are also involved in the project.