Camera-trapping in the Chyulus

(This article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2014. Author: Craig Millar, Security and Field Coordinator, Big Life Foundation)

The Chyulu Hills’ rhinos are a difficult population to work with; they live in dense bush and are completely wild, unfenced and unmanaged. Their first reaction to human presence is to charge and/or run away.

Earlier this year, I spent two months in the rhino area, tracking rhino every day. During this period, I saw a rhino on only three occasions and each time I had to climb a tree pretty quickly! On average, the team of 50 rangers, from Big Life Foundation and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) see rhino around 25 times a year.

This makes monitoring the rhinos very difficult, from both a scientific and security perspective. Prior to this year, the only way to estimate the population was through DNA analysis of dung found by rangers. This gave a minimum of 14 rhino in 2011, and was little help in identifying individuals on the ground.

The years since 2011 have been tough on rhino and we are no exception; every rhino loss pushes us closer to the point of no return, where the population stops being viable. We lost one bull in 2012 and three rhinos in 2013 (one bull and a mother and calf).

The best way to get information on these rhino is through camera trapping. Big Life and KWS now operate 10 camera traps in the rhino area, for both rhino monitoring and security. This year, a monitoring system using a combination of camera traps and track measurement has yielded results – we are now constantly evaluating the rhino population, identifying individuals and keeping track of breeding, territories and habits.

The new system has confirmed the identification of 11 rhino, with suspicions of at least three more. The rangers have named four rhinos. One is called Cathy in appreciation for Cathy Dean’s (and Save the Rhino’s) support over the years. Nataana, meaning “the close one”, is named for where she likes to spend her time. Dixon is named after the oldest Big Life ranger who started working in 1991! The third female is named after Tara Bonham and gave birth to a calf in November 2013 – the third this year. As I write another two females (both with calves) have been identified and will be named shortly.

Using camera traps we get an additional 70 to 100 “sightings” each year. While these are mostly at night, many images can lead to immediate rhino identification. And by measuring the tracks from low-quality images we can identify rhinos nine times out of 10.

In addition to the six camera traps used on rhino wallows, rhino paths and waterholes, we have four GSM camera traps on access paths to rhino area, which have been cleverly disguised using old bits of wood carved by one of our talented rangers. These cameras can send images to a phone at the HQ and have already proved effective. In October, a group of poachers went into the rhino area, an image was received and a joint effort by KWS, Big Life and the combined services Rapid Deployment Unit based at Hunters Lodge prevented any poaching taking place and led to the arrest of one would-be poacher.

The 10 camera traps have made a massive difference and the prospect of additional camera traps from a ZSL grant to the Tsavo conservation area is very exciting. If this much progress has been made with 10, imagine what we could do with 50! Ideally we will have an extensive grid system of camera traps so we can monitor each rhino to a satisfactory standard. This will lead to increased data for research and more effective security for this special population.