Kenyan rains wash away elephant research

By Daniel Collins 08/03/2010

The Save the Elephants research camp in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, was hit by a flash flood on Thursday. No-one was killed, but according to STE the site was severely damaged and much research lost.

“At approximately 5am this morning, a wall of water akin to a Tsunami surged through Elephant Watch Camp, catching tourists and staff unawares and sweeping away tents and facilities. It has been confirmed that camp owner Oria Douglas-Hamilton and guests managed to escape to safety by climbing to higher ground. Several members of staff were trapped in trees until the water subsided later today.

At approximately 7am the flood hit and decimated Save the Elephants’ research facility down river. Researchers and staff managed to drive to safety within seconds of the flood waters surging through the facility.”

According to the BBC, noteworthy research conducted at the site discovered that a fence of wood, wire and beehives can deter elephants from raiding farmers’ crops. This is important in the on-going struggle for coexistence between food-short elephants and humans.

When I look at pictures of the site – close-up and satellite – vulnerability to flash-flooding is not a real surprise. Flash floods results from the perfect storm of intense rainfall and an inability for the soil to absorb the water. Mean annual rainfall in the area is on the order of 700 mm, but a large proportion falls during the March-May rainy season. With higher temperatures and associated convective air movement, when it does rain it can rain a lot. And images of the river in flood depict a very muddy river. Indeed, Ewaso Ng’iro – the river running through the camps – means the river of brown or muddy waters. Combined with a guesstimate of the regional geomorphology, this suggests the soils are predominantly fine-to-medium grained – soil grain sizes that are readily swamped by convective rainstorms.

When they re-build (if you’re a fan, go donate!), I hope they consider a better site. While it is nice to build near the river amidst the riparian trees, and probably more economical on the short term in terms of energy savings due to the shade, they put themselves at the mercy of a capricious and occasionally dangerous environment. It would be wise to install flow sensors at strategic locations up-river to give a warning of any impending flood, and have a prioritised plan to bring people, belongings and data to safety in the event of a flood warning.

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