Agony of Living with Elephants (Kenya)


Wagema Mwangi, Kenya News Agency

Date Published

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To a casual eye, the wild tangled bush in lower Sagalla region in Voi sub-county looks as serene as nature can be.

With the high ridges shimmering in the horizon, the tranquil, almost idyllic settings evoke memories of rural life in past ages.

It’s a land where anyone willing to escape from the  hustle and bustle of busy cities would die to live in.

But underneath that ruggedly deceptive appearance, hundreds of families dread coming out at night.

With the fall of darkness, families huddle around fireplaces with doors tightly locked.

Mothers cradle their small children while older ones are forcefully taken to bed.

Tin lamps are turned down low.

Unnatural silence falls over the entire land.

Death has become a frequent visitor especially at night to these rural folk in Taita Taveta county  .

On a cold moonless night in December last year, Ms. Florence Wangai, 62, fumbled for a matchbox on her table.

Moments earlier, a sharp gust of wind had sneaked in through a fissure on the wall and blown off the candle flame.

She thought she might have left the matchbox in the kitchen.

The kitchen, a ramshackle structure, was a separate house, located some few meters away from the main one.

Picking up her walking stick, she fumbled in the darkness and located the door.

She struggled to open it and stepped out.

Her first step outside would be her last. In the darkness, she bumped into a rogue elephant, a massive bull which was part of a herd that had camped in her farm for the past two days.

Startled by the contact, the elephant whirled and smacked her with its trunk.

The impact hurled her back into the house.An autopsy, two days later, showed she had suffered a broken neck.

“The blow snapped her neck. She died instantly,” said Cecilia Mshambwa, a human rights activist, who represented the family during the autopsy. She was also part of the team that pieced together the sequence of events that preceded the death of the old woman.

Ms. Wangai adds to the statistics of rising fatalities caused by elephants in Taita-Taveta County.

The numbers are grim.A January 2017 report by the County Wildlife Compensation Committee (CWCC) cited that the County had 23 elephant-related deaths since 2014.

Over 70 per cent of these fatalities occurred from 2016.

The number of those injured and near-fatal encounters caused by rogue jumbos run in their hundreds.

Reports of dozens of villagers hospitalized after sustaining injuries from rampaging jumbos are too common.

Mr. John Mlamba, the chair of the committee, admits that elephants have become the biggest threat to villages adjacent to Tsavo National Park.

He opines that the number of deaths might soar due to the ravaging drought that has driven herds of elephants into villages.

“These are perilous times. Elephants have now invaded farms and homesteads. The encounters and deaths are just too common,” he said adding that out of all the deaths, only three families have been compensated.

Taita-Taveta County has for years been identified as a human-wildlife conflict hotspot due to the frequent clashes between man and beast.

The County is home to Tsavo National Park; the largest protected area in East and Central Africa.

With an area of 22, 810 km2,  Tsavo National  Park occupies 63 per cent of the total land mass in  the County.

Since 2009,  the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has deployed  the Problem Animal Management Unit (PAMU), a special unit that deals with rogue elephants, in areas worst hit by the crisis.

PAMU is based in Laikipia County and is only deployed to areas deemed as too conflict-prone.

Area hardest hit include Maktau and Kamutonga in Mwatate, Sagalla and Ghazi in Voi and Kishushe in Wundanyi.

By  the end of 2016, fifteen out of the twenty wards in the County had reported elephants-related conflicts.

Elephant’s census in 2011was estimated to be 12,570.

This is the single largest elephant population bloc in Kenya.

Known for their affinity to migrate and roam in vast areas, such a huge number of elephants would trigger a conflict with the residents.

Since 2016, herds with hundreds of elephants have virtually camped outside the national park in human inhabited areas.

While in the past elephants came out late at night, it is now common to see elephants wandering in farms and homesteads during daytime.

In areas like Sagalla, Njukini and Kamutonga, learning has been disrupted as parents refuse to allow children, especially in ECDEs and lower primary to go to school.

KWS officials claim that settling along traditional elephants’ migration corridors created the conflicts.

When Tsavo National Park was created in 1948, the population of Taita-Taveta district was estimated to be 68,000.

Vast swathes of unoccupied land became roaming rangeland for elephants.

With time, the population of the region gradually grew with people settling on migration corridors.

Apart from KWS version of  the causes of conflict, there have been a number of compelling explanations advanced to explain the spike in human-wildlife conflict.

 A 2016 report by a team of scientists observed that mega projects cutting through the park had impacted adversely on the wildlife lifestyles.

The report, titled movement of satellite-linked collared elephants and other wildlife in relation to the SGR and Highways in Tsavo ecosystem, Kenya noted that the projects had cut off the elephants from their migration routes pushing them into farms and villages.

SGR has a length of over 140 km inside the Tsavo East National Park.

The  Voi-Taveta Highway cuts across Tsavo West for a distance of over 80km.

There is also the new oil pipeline that is currently being constructed inside Tsavo East.

Kenya National Highway Authorities (KeNHA) has also reported plans to expand the busy Nairobi-Mombasa Highway into a dual carriage.

A vast chunk of the highway falls within the iconic park.

To reduce the conflicts, Tsavo Conservation Area Assistant Director Julius Cheptei said an electric fence would substantially reduce the deaths.

Already, 84-km Ndii-Kishushe-Maktau fence is completed and operational.

This has reduced conflicts in Maktau and Bura environs by 90 per cent.

The next phase of construction will be 28-km Aria-Bura-Kasighau fence whose tender for provision of materials has already been awarded.

Local residents however hold a different view.

They argue the increase in conflict is a direct result of thousands of herds of cattle currently grazing in the park.

Mr. Gamariel Mwangi, Chair of a conservation group, said the park has received over 300,000 herds of cattle from counties in Northern Kenya.

Other herds are streaming in from Tanzania, Kajiado and Tana River counties fleeing from ravaging droughts in their home counties.

Their findings notes that Tsavo West is the worst affected as hundreds of illegal herders flock the park.

He added the massive herds have cleared pastures and water pans meant for wild animals pushing the animals into villages.

“The elephants have nowhere to stay inside the park. They have been driven outside into villages by the cows,” he said.

Taita-Taveta County Commissioner Ms Kula Hache agrees that herds in the park were contributing to the conflict stating that an operation to drive the herds away was still underway.

“The ranches have been taking more animals than they can accommodate.

The excess numbers end up inside the park,” she explained.

To express their ire, local leaders have twice blocked the KWS community center at Sofia in Voi in protest.

Led by Governor John Mruttu, they demanded for intensified operations to drive elephants back to the park.

But even such efforts are yet to placate the locals, who complain the iconic park has only brought death, pain and suffering to them.

The major grievances are that Tsavo National Park is managed by  the national government through KWS.

As such, the residents have no say in how the affairs of the vast park are run.

There have been half-hearted attempts in the past to lobby for the county to obtain partial control of the park.

Christopher Mwabingu, a Director of Taita-Taveta Resource Center, argues that the local MPs should lobby to amend the act the established the national park to allow the community more stake.

“We want to benefit from this park. We can have the community getting a share of the revenues,” he said.He added that timely compensation for deaths and property and crop destruction would also pacify the local residents.

KWS plans to partner with the county to establish a joint livestock movement strategic policy that will regulate the influx of animals in the county.