Once blamed for elephant deaths, locals take lead in conservation (Kenya)


Phares Mutembei, The Standard

Date Published

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At the height of animal-human conflict around the Imenti Forest in Meru, elephants and people died by their numbers.

A month hardly passed without a casualty on both sides.

Residents, frustrated and tired of losing crops each season, resorted to laying traps around their farms and keeping vigil throughout the night in shifts, in order to trap the jumbos.

However, up to 11 people were killed by marauding jumbos as they raided farms for food, between 2014 and 2016. In retaliation an equal number of elephants were killed.

Concerned by the number of elephant deaths and escalating conflict with locals, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Rhino Ark, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and other players set out to stem the tide of conflict.

Rhino Ark’s Adam Mwangi said the conservation agencies had to act to save the elephants by placing residents at the centre of conservation efforts.

And now, 157 community members are leading the effort to keep elephants and farms safe around the forest.

The team of fence attendants is tasked with ensuring that elephants do not stray into farms, and that only authorised people go into the forest.

To underline the important role fence attendants do, they have been put on payroll by Rhino Ark, a conservation body.

Harun Kirimi, a resident of the area, is also a fence attendant. Like other attendants, his duty is to patrol four kilometres of the fence, looking out for threats in order to prevent damage and encroachment.

Kirimi said in the past, residents had the habit of short-circuiting the fence to gain access to the forest in search of timber and firewood.

They would also encroach forest land to farm, graze their animals, burn charcoal and engage in other activities that contributed to degradation.

“Before the fence was erected we had elephants coming to our farms almost every day. We lost crops and people died,” Kirimi told The Standard on Saturday.

Adding that, “Children had a scary time going to school. Some people even sold their land and moved away from the edge of the forest.”

But through concerted efforts, the fence patrol team has managed to contain the elephants and humans well.

“We can now grow crops with calm because it is rare for herds to break out of the forest into farms. Since May, only one elephant has come out at Nchoroiboro area,” he said.

If herds pull down the poles holding the electric wires, the attendants either drive them back or call the KWS for reinforcement.

Kirimi said after being trained about conservation, he has no qualms reporting residents who gain illegal entry into the forest.

“If we see people inside the forest, we report to the warden who sends officers. Some have been arrested,” he said.

Sophia Karamuta, another fence attendant, said in addition to preventing encroachment, they are also charged with ensuring the electric wires have the right voltage to deter any elephant getting out.

“Women used to go into the forest at will to collect firewood, but they cannot do it now because we are here. Our job is to ensure conflict is at zero, because so many people and elephants died and we do not any recurrence,” she said.

Mwangi said before the attendants were brought on board, Rhino Ark used to spend Sh80,000 to repair one kilometer of damaged fence-line.

“It was costly to maintain the fence, including salaries, fuel and personnel. We also had habitual fence breakers in elephants but that has reduced now,” he said.