Q&A: Walking for Elephants: One Man’s Journey Across Kenya


By Maraya Cornell, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic

Date Published
See link for photos. 
On March 14, Jim Justus Nyamu, a 39-year-old Kenyan conservationist and elephant research scientist, completed a 283-mile-walk (455 km) from Emali to Voi in Kenya. Nyamu passed through the Amboseli and Tsavo ecosystems, both critical refuges for Kenya’s elephant populations. By walking for elephants as part of his Ivory Belongs to Elephants campaign, Nyamu hopes to raise awareness and better involve rural Kenyan communities in wildlife conservation.
Many of the community members Nyamu spoke with had questions and concerns about Kenya’s new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, in place since January 2014. The act stiffens penalties related to wildlife crime, but it also gives communities more authority to manage natural resources locally. It specifies compensation to individuals and families for wildlife-related death, as well as injury and damage to property.
Since 2013, Nyamu has walked nearly 2,500 miles (4,000 km) in Kenya and 560 miles in the U.S. as part of the campaign. Nyamu is the founder and executive director of the Nairobi-based Elephant Neighbors Center.
Nyamu spoke via Skype after his recent walk.
Last month, you finished a 455-kilometer (283-mile) walk in Kenya, the latest in your Ivory Belongs to Elephants campaign. What was this campaign about?
The Ivory Belongs to Elephants walk is a grassroots education campaign geared to engage the local communities who live with the wildlife outside protected areas on how best they can manage and benefit from the wildlife. The other thing is to raise awareness and educate the communities about the new Wildlife Conservation Management Act.
What was a typical day like?
Our day would start from five in the morning. We would do the breakfast, we would knock down the camp, do the packing. I would visit the first school as early as 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and then we’d begin marching. I would walk with five, six, seven schools in a day. In between the schools, I would meet with maybe five different community groups. People would be out, waiting for our convoy, ready to ask questions, ready to support us, ready to criticize us. The last hour would probably be 8 in the evening because we also wanted to show a video in the community center or school centers.
What were some of the questions people asked?
They were asking about the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act. The compensation [for wildlife injury and property damage] only [applies to] last year. Who is going to pay for the past losses they’ve incurred from the wildlife? And they wanted to know the procedure on how they should report the incidents, how long should they wait before they’re compensated.
Who accompanied you on the walk?
I had 17 to start, and this was comprised of the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Kenya Police, the [county] administration police. I would also get support from the community game scouts who would come along and walk with me, as well as my support team and institutions like Amara Conservation.
You walked alongside Amboseli National Park and around the southern border of Tsavo West in Kenya. Why did you choose this particular route?
I chose this area because the Tsavo ecosystem is the largest in Kenya, accommodating 11,076 elephants, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service’s 2014 aerial census data. The other thing is Tsavo is known for one of the highest levels of human-elephant conflict. It borders five different community user groups—agriculturalists, pastoralists.
One of the difficulties was that the walk coincided with the dry season, when the conflict was very high. Ten elephants were killed while I was walking in this area. Four people were killed by elephants, and two were injured by elephants. So people would find it not very convincing that I’m talking about conserving and protecting elephants when they are experiencing human-wildlife conflict which was very high.
So how did you deal with that?
I would say, “It is so unfortunate that these things have happened.” I would talk about the effect of climate change as a reality, that we need to come together with Kenya Wildlife Service, national government, county government, and build on some integrated management plan.
What were some positive outcomes of the walk?
There are communities who want to come together and form community conservancies.
Wildlife conservation organizations all over Africa are grappling with this need to engage communities. What did you see or hear on this last walk that really underscores that need?
Communities have lacked the sense of ownership. Some NGOs, they don’t work for communities. Some are very happy when there are problems, to raise money, and they don’t involve communities.
One community in Amboseli said that they had lived with elephants for ages, but they have never seen the benefit of the elephant.
In part of Tsavo East, a man told me that elephants and wildlife have lots of benefit. He believes that other countries, including Somalia and even Tanzania, are losing their wildlife populations, and so he feels that it is his personal responsibility [to save Kenyan wildlife].
Was there a place you visited where NGOs are working effectively with communities?
Yeah, Amboseli Elephant Trust has one of the best models. They have brought all the stakeholders, the NGOs, together.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning a walk with the Kenya Wildlife Service in California in June and July. I’m looking for a partner organization in California that could help me.