The helicopter hovers just above the trees as the bull elephant charges through scrubland below. Emerging into a clearing, the animal's pace momentarily slackens. The gunmen leaning out of the side of the chopper pulls the trigger.
“Got him,” the shooter shouts, signalling a direct hit. There is no sign of blood, however, or even of the animal being in pain. The only indication that a shot has been taken is a pink-topped dart in the elephant's side.
Gradually the animal's pace slackens and he begins to wander in ever-diminishing circles. Finally, after a quarter of an hour, he stops. The bull's ears flap two times and he then falls onto his right side, sending up a cloud of dust.
The helicopter - which had retreated to a distance far enough that the sound of the rotors would not upset the elephant - lands thirty feet away. From it run four occupants, all carrying medical and scientific equipment. None have the saw used by poachers to cut the front of an elephant's skull to get at the tusks, nor the bindings then used to wrap them together for transport.
This is not an instance of the animal being hunted for ivory, which the criminal gangs call 'white gold'. It is an operation being conducted to try to ensure the elephant's survival by hitting it with a tranquiliser dart so that a GPS tracker can be fitted and the animal's movements subsequently tracked.
“We need to know where the elephant goes from one location to another,” explains Matthew Mutinda, the wildlife vet who took the shot and is now overseeing the fitting of the GPS collar. “The more we know about where they go, the more we can protect them.”
Mr Mutinda has conducted dozens of operations such as this. It is an exercise not without risk. Later that day I met a female conservationist who had been on just such a collaring when an elephant, thinking a member of its herd was in danger, emerged from the bush and impaled her, resulting in months of medical treatment.
It is nevertheless a vital part of the work conducted by the charity we are supporting this Christmas, Space for Giants. It allows them to better understand the elephants that still roam the Laikipia plateau, north-west of Mount Kenya, and be able to develop the conservation strategies needed to ensure their continued survival.
The money donated through the generosity of Independent readers to our campaign this Christmas will focus primarily on developing four areas of poacher prevention in Africa.
Firstly, Space for Giants is in discussions to help establish a new state-of the-art wildlife conservancy in northern Kenya, a short distance north of where the GPS collaring operation I witnessed occurred. This would provide a fresh sanctuary for Africa's animals.
The charity also helps train and co-ordinate the wildlife rangers who each night go out to protect endangered wildlife. Thirdly it has developed strategies to build support in local communities for conservation work, and to emphasis the economic boon wildlife brings to an area.
The implementation of these programmes has already achieved a 64 per cent reduction in poaching where they are already underway. Now, with your help, it will be able to expand them into a far greater geographical area. In the coming weeks we at The Independent will focus on each of these funding areas in turn so you know exactly how all the money raised will be spent.
But before any of those three activities can effectively be undertaken, Space for Giants needs to know where the elephants are and what they are doing, which is why GPS tracking is key.
Each of the collars fitted sends out an hourly update on the animal's location, enabling migrations and grazing habits to be established over periods of weeks and months. This programme is therefore the fourth plank of the organisation's conservation strategy.
“During the current crisis, GPS tracking of elephants has moved away from being a purely scientific task to being a key element of our anti-poaching work,” said Dr Max Graham, founder of Space for Giants. “If an elephant is killed, we will know exactly where and when. If an elephant is entering a danger zone, we can deploy anti-poaching teams.”
Each collar costs around £1500. It takes around twenty minutes for it to be fitted, the black transmitter held tight around the elephant's neck by a canvas belt. An antidote to the etorphine tranquiliser is then administered, and within minutes, the elephant is back on its feet.
From the air we watched as the darted bull elephant rose up and then lumbered back into the surrounding woodland, seemingly unaffected by its experience.
The GPS collar was already giving out readings. Back at Space for Giants' HQ a simple icon marching across a computer screen showed where this animal, now unknowingly watched and protected, roams the East African bush.Reuse content