Washington — Nothing has dissuaded Mike Loomis from returning to the wilds of Cameroon each year for 15 years — not voracious insects; not exotic parasites; not rain, mud, or formidable terrain; not even the prospect of a monotonous diet of beans for two months straight.
That’s because Loomis loves elephants and wants to save them.
“I am passionate about elephant conservation,” says the chief veterinarian at the North Carolina Zoological Park, “and I really like the country of Cameroon and the people of Cameroon. I enjoy the fieldwork. Physically it’s difficult, but it’s all worth it.”
Loomis teaches zoological medicine at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and is a member of the Associate Graduate Faculty and Geographical Information System Faculty there as well. As part of his job at the North Carolina Zoological Park, Loomis developed and now coordinates an elephant conservation project in Cameroon in partnership with the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Launched in 1998, the project’s goal is to determine elephant land-use patterns and find ways to reduce human-elephant conflicts.
African elephants were added to the USFWS endangered species list in 1978. Addition of a foreign species places restrictions on the importation into the United States of either the animal or its parts. Listing also generates benefits such as increased awareness of the species, prompting research efforts to address their conservation needs and donations for conservation. About 600 foreign species are listed, compared to about 1,400 species native to the United States.
An estimated 1,000 to 5,000 African elephants remain in Cameroon. Populations have been decimated by poachers seeking ivory tusks and human populations encroaching on elephant habitats. When hungry elephants challenge humans over precious agricultural fields, the elephants lose.
To save the elephants, Loomis and a team that includes Cameroon officials and wildlife experts spend two months each year tracking and collaring elephants. Elephants are darted with an anesthetic that allows the team to outfit the animal with a collar that transmits data regarding its location to satellites operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The data are downloaded to a processing station and sent daily via email to the North Carolina Zoological Park, the World Wildlife Fund and the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.
The collar's batteries allow data transmission for about a year. Eventually the collar deteriorates and falls off the elephant. Accurate elephant location data assist in establishing boundaries for new protected areas.
“Mount Cameroon National Park was formed just about two years ago in December,” Loomis said, “and the elephant location data that we provided the government of Cameroon was used to determine the final boundaries of that national park.”
The information also informs decisions about where elephants need to be turned away .
“By understanding the movement patterns of the elephants, we are getting an idea of when they leave protected areas and where they go when they leave the protected areas,” Loomis said. “Then we can set up nonlethal deterrents to chase the elephants out of the agricultural areas.”
The most effective methods for keeping elephants away, according to Loomis, involve shooting pepper spray over herds to drive them away or soaking rope boundaries with pepper juice to irritate elephant eyes and trunks. The taste of pepper plants planted around a field also sometimes deters elephants.
In addition, aggressive African honeybees are enlisted to protect agricultural crops, Loomis said. Hives connected by ropes are set up around a field. When the elephants jostle the ropes, they agitate bees that drive away the elephants.
“Elephants don’t like bees,” Loomis said, “and they’ll stay away. The secondary benefit for the people who put up these beehives is that they can collect the honey.”
Even though all these methods help keep elephants out of human territory, the real problem is sustainability, Loomis said.
To date, Loomis and his teams have collared approximately 40 elephants in protected areas all over Cameroon, but how many elephants have been saved because of these collars?
“It’s really hard to quantify that,” Loomis said. “Often when we are in the field, we will actually run across poachers. We have been able to confiscate weapons from poachers because [Cameroonian] ministry people are with us who have the legal authority to do that. Ministry people also destroy poachers’ camps when we run across those.”
“With the collared elephants,” Loomis said, “we know where the elephants are going, so anti-poaching patrols can be concentrated in those areas.
“We know that poachers are being caught in association of patrols that are around these areas,” he said, “so we know that we are definitely saving animals.”
Read Loomis’s field journal for his 2012 trip to Cameroon.