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The smell of rotting flesh hit long before the dead elephant came into view, a bullet in her head, her body sprawled across a patch of scrubland a few yards from a village in northern Kenya.
Two weeks earlier, while searching for food, the elephant and her baby had encountered villagers on a road near the town of Archers Post in the early evening. Intimidated by the hulking creature, people threw rocks, honked their horns and flashed their lights. While fleeing, the elephant trampled a middle-aged man to death. The following night she killed a second man in similar circumstances. She disappeared for a while, but was then hunted down and shot, leaving her baby orphaned.
David Daballen, head of field operations for the charity Save the Elephants, placed leaves on the huge corpse as a mark of respect.
“We tried to see how we could actually save her,” he said. They attempted to drive the elephant away with a helicopter but she kept coming back and approaching humans. “It’s really, really sad that she killed people and eventually the retaliation just happened.”
Stories like this are all too common today in Samburu county, a sparsely populated slab of mountainous terrain in northern Kenya where climate change, coronavirus and an effective crackdown on poachers have combined to drive an alarming surge in human-elephant conflict.
Hunting of elephants that threaten humans has overtaken poaching as the main non-natural cause of death for the animals in the region.
At least 70 elephants were killed for that reason last year in northern Kenya, half as many as were dispatched by poachers at the height of the illegal ivory trade.
Human fatalities and injuries are harder to quantify, but are also common. As well as the two deaths at the village, four children were recently injured by elephants in the area. Between 2010 and 2017, an estimated 200 people in Kenya died as a result of human-elephant conflict and a similar number if not more are believed to have died since then.
In this new war, Archers Post with its dusty high street and rudimentary houses is the front line. As we drove into town, two teenage elephants were idling on the outskirts, limbering up for a night raid. In recent months, the local secondary school has been invaded several times. Hungry elephants even smashed through the wall of the town’s police station.
Between April and June, one resident’s home was raided five times. “It was 8pm, I was inside relaxing and then the dogs barked,” John Lenkulate said, describing the most recent raid while standing beside a pile of elephant dung in his garden. “Just imagine at night that huge animal comes next to your house. How do you feel?”
Lenkulate, 53, a hospital administrator, usually chases them away by banging on cooking pots, but as encounters grow more common, they are becoming less afraid. “The elephants are so used to drumming and even bullets, they don’t go any more,” he said. “The elephant menace is getting too much.”
Jackson Letoye, 73, a village elder, said: “It’s the first time seeing so many elephants in town without fear. The little bit of green [in people’s gardens] is bringing them here. When they come, they destroy everything.”
Killing elephants or other endangered animals is a serious offence in Kenya, punishable by life in prison and huge fines. While communities are tight-lipped about elephant deaths, experts say they are not carried out by hunting parties but by well-armed local herders. In recent years weapons have flooded into northern Kenya, many of them from war-torn Ethiopia.
In Samburu National Reserve, a former tourist hotspot where drought and overgrazing has transformed lush savannah into a dusty red wasteland, the bones of a long-dead elephant shot by an unknown assailant are scattered along a dirt road. The bullet entered through the chin and emerged through the top of its head.
Wilson Lelukumani, 44, who runs one of Save the Elephants’ rapid response units, has the job of cooling tension when conflicts arise. He is a busy man. “Each and every day, night hours, day hours,” he said of the prevalence of human-elephant conflict, his foot bandaged from a recent elephant encounter. “When you hear someone calling you, you rush to that place before they kill that animal. But when you delay, that’s the time they kill that animal or they chase it with bullets.”
Just a few years ago, Lelukumani was being threatened by poachers, who were driving Samburu’s elephants towards extinction. Now the poachers are gone – dead, jailed, won over or pursuing other activities – and he has taken to guiding local children past unpredictable elephants on their way to school in Archers Post.
The ivory trade has worked in cycles, from the apocalyptic 1970s and 80s when their population halved, to the worldwide ban on ivory trading in 1989 which brought a reprieve. Then one-off legal sales to Japan and China helped the illicit trade pick up again. Between 2010 and 2012 more than 100,000 African elephants were lost, killed for their tusks.
A combined effort by conservation organisations, governments, celebrities and local people to stop the poaching, trafficking and demand turned the tide, while, under international pressure, China imposed an ivory ban of its own. In recent years, several prominent ivory traffickers have been brought to justice.
As a result elephant populations around Samburu increased, and the creatures started exploring again after spending decades huddling for safety in Kenya’s national parks.
The human population has also grown, driven by advances in healthcare, meaning elephants often wander into the informal settlements and boreholes that are springing up in their traditional corridors. The livestock population has also exploded, with goats and cows integral to the traditional lifestyles of the local Samburu and Turkana tribes.
Experts say that previously pastoralists would keep their livestock out of Kenya’s wildlife-rich national parks because the safari lodges catering for tourists would hire their family members. But when the Covid-19 pandemic closed down the lodges – many of them for good – all bets were off.
In rare patches of fertile land, elephants now compete for food with thousands of goats and cattle. Sarara, one of Save the Elephants’ collared elephants, last November hobbled into camp with a two-foot spear in its belly, probably thrown by a youngster herding livestock.
Without treatment by a vet he would probably have died. With nothing to eat in their traditional grazing lands, elephants are increasingly foraging in schools and gardens or breaking into water containers.
To make matters worse, northern Kenya is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, leaving about four million people reliant on food aid. When the rains do come, the once verdant soil is so compromised that the water runs straight off it.
Human-elephant conflict is playing out across Africa, including in Malawi and Zimbabwe. In India too, conflict caused 1,401 human deaths between 2018 and 2020.
NGOs say it puts vital conservation efforts at risk because it makes fundraising harder.
“Poaching was very simple. You send a picture of a mother elephant with her face cut off and the baby standing there and everybody is going to sympathise and send a lot of dollars,” said Daballen. “Today it could be a community member who has been hurt, a community member has been killed, it’s so hard, it’s so complicated.”
At the height of the poaching crisis, the eradication of wild elephants in Africa was touted as a grim possibility. Now human-elephant conflict, if ignored, could put it back on the agenda.
What is happening is a “tragedy”, according to Frank Pope, chief executive of Save the Elephants. “Snakes and mosquitoes kill more Kenyans but nothing symbolises the competition for resources between humans and animals more visibly than conflict between elephants and humans,” he said. “Elephants are an icon of what it means to be wild.”