The grim reality of human-elephant conflict in northern Kenya


By Tanya Onserio

Date Published

With elephant poaching reducing across much of Africa, elephant populations are starting to recover and expand their range. Sadly, this often means they come into conflict with humans.

In northern Kenya, a series of recent elephant deaths has highlighted the gravity of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the area. Over the past couple of months, elephants have become victims of retaliatory killings and are being shot or speared to death by members of the local community. 

One of the main drivers of HEC is livestock encroachment. Pressure from illegal livestock grazing in elephant rangeland impacts the amount of food available for elephants. This sometimes causes them to venture outside the safety of protected areas to graze, putting their lives at risk. A further consequence of encroachment is the increased chances of herders being attacked by nervous elephants. 

“Africa’s elephants are still endangered and their future is far from assured,” says our founder and president, Iain Douglas-Hamilton. “We need to preserve wild spaces and corridors where elephants can roam freely and safely” 

In April, one of our study elephants, 21 year old Shafaa, was gunned down. She was one of eight elephants killed in the span of just a week. Shafaa was a young orphaned elephant who survived the horror of her mother being killed by poachers and eventually gave birth to two calves of her own. Before her life was tragically cut short, she was an important part of our orphan monitoring and research work in northern Kenya, where she was known for making arduous journeys through dangerous territory with two other orphaned elephants.

Most recently, a group of hungry elephants invaded farms and raided crops in Ngaremara close to Samburu National Reserve. Angry farmers threatened to kill the elephants, so our teams and Kenya Wildlife Service had to be stationed there day and night to help drive the elephants away and keep the peace. 

Save the Elephants (STE) and its partners are working on practical solutions to resolve  conflict between farmers and crop-raiding elephants. In places like Tsavo where HEC is rife, our Elephants and Bees Project has developed a toolbox of deterrent methods such as beehive fences, organic repellent fences, buzz boxes (motion triggered speakers playing the sound of swarming bees), and elephant watch towers which is deployed within the local community to curb HEC incidents.

In Samburu, the situation is a bit different as the clash between pastoralist nomads and elephants is more challenging to understand and manage. In response, we have established a Rapid Response Unit (RRU). Trained in conflict management, the RRU will work with local communities in the North to de-escalate conflict situations. Investigations have also been launched in an attempt to learn all we can about the clashes and start to build an alternative mindset among the herders who hold the future of Samburu’s elephants in their hands.

At a continental level, our Elephant Crisis Fund is now supporting projects that catalyse coexistence, funding partners to try novel solutions or expand the impact of existing mitigation methods, sharing best practice and creating networks as we go.

Habitat loss and human-elephant conflict are complex issues but STE and partners across the continent are working together to turn conflict into coexistence. We look forward to a future with elephants and humans living together in harmony.

Top image by Jane Wynyard