The Elephant in the Town


Jane Wynyard/Save the Elephants

Date Published

STE’s Head of Wildlife Security, Chris Leadismo, in northern Kenya. Photo: Jane Wynyard

Our rapid response units are spending sleepless nights driving hungry and thirsty elephants out of human settlements in northern Kenya. It’s tough and relentless work. But just how do you move a six-tonne stubborn bull elephant out of someone’s backyard? As the head of our Samburu unit, Chris Leadismo explains, it takes well-trained rangers, a lot of patience, a calm attitude and the ability to stay one step ahead.

With Kenya in the grip of a drought, a group of wild bull elephants have been making nightly visits to Archer’s Post – a small settlement in northern Kenya that borders three national reserves – Buffalo Springs, Shaba and Samburu.

The bulls are in search of Acacia trees that local Samburu residents have carefully nurtured in their private compounds. Acacia pods are the elephants’ favourite snack.  In one night, they can destroy several trees. In the process they also smash down walls and fences to reach the delicacy.

For the residents of Archer’s Post, a huge elephant looming over their houses and huts in the middle of the night and damaging their compound is a terrifying experience. The loss of trees and damage to property is especially devastating for a community that already has so little and is living in such a harsh environment.

The elephants are super smart. Most evenings, they wait on the other side of the river until it’s dark and then cross into town. Sometimes it’s one bull. Other times there are three or four.

Despite their huge size, elephants are remarkably good at concealing themselves in the nearby bush and ‘tiptoeing’ around the town. Locals don’t often spot them until they’ve either started tearing up the trees or have broken into someone’s compound. It’s often then that they call Save the Elephants’ rapid response unit and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to intervene.

Anwar, the bull elephant, in Samburu National Reserve. Photo: Jane Wynyard

One of the ringleaders is a large bull elephant named Anwar. He’s a lovable rogue – well-known in Samburu National Reserve for his penchant for vehicles, often surprising tourists by trying to stick his head in the window or rubbing his chin on the roof.  He means no harm of course and is surprisingly relaxed around people.

This chilled attitude, however, is going to get him into serious trouble or even killed.

Just last week, he was crashing through fences, eating trees and knocking down street lamps in the middle of Archer’s Post.  Fortunately, our rapid response unit was quick to the scene, and we were able to push Anwar across the river and back into the safety of Buffalo Springs National Reserve.

But it took many hours and a lot of hard work. Anwar refused to budge even when we started revving the car engine, driving towards him, flashing our lights and banging large pieces of tin. It wasn’t until one of our team emptied his weapon of bullets and started cocking his gun, did Anwar race away.  It’s a sad state of affairs that Anwar even knows the sound of a cocked gun, but it was the only method that seemed to work.

Frustratingly he was back the next night, in the same spot in Archer’s Post, eating Acacia trees. Our unit, alongside a team from Kenya Wildlife Service, once again spent a sleepless night pushing him back to the river with our vehicles.

It’s only a matter of time before Anwar or one of the bulls gets in trouble. We’ve already seen this in Daaba where a bull called Para was killed, apparently in retaliation for damaging community water points.

Our rapid response units and KWS are doing their best to drive the elephants away and protect the community and their property.  The Save the Elephants’ research team also recently collared Anwar to keep an eye on his movements and help us intercept him before he enters town. However,  tension in Archer’s Post is already at an all time high.

Anwar was recently collared in an effort to stop him entering local settlements. Footage: Frank Pope

My worst fear is that one day I will receive a call of a dead elephant in the town. I know it will either be Anwar or one of his friends, killed in retaliation. We know most of these bulls by sight as we’ve studied their movements and behaviours for years so they are like family to us.

For now, all we can do is keep vigil every night for the elephants and repeatedly drive them back to the river. We pray the rains will come soon, the grass will grow, the elephants will stop their night visits and peace will once again return to Archer’s Post.

Watch this short film below by Jane Wynyard which shows the rapid response unit trying to move Anwar from Archers’ Post.