Elephant Crop-Raids: Kenyan Intern Blog

Blog by Robert Mwehe, Elephants and Bees Kenyan Intern, MSc student at Yale University

I first came to Mwakoma when Dr. Lucy made a call for interns to join her at the Tsavo Elephants and Bees Project site in June 2012. Since then, and prior to building the new research centre, I had been coming in and out of Mwakoma. In that period, I had never been within Mwakoma when elephants invaded the farms. I always got reports of how the elephants had entered the farms, ate this or that and, in rare circumstances, injured or killed residents within Mwakoma or, in the neighbouring villages. After the research centre was up and running, we had not heard anything to “excite” us. Things changed in June 2014.

June wasn’t a good month for many late harvesting farmers in Mwakoma. The first elephant made more of a reconnaissance tour. It moved within the community, eating here and there. We were excited about this incursion by the lone elephant. We figured that would just be a rare event and we’d have to wait a few more months for anything significant. The very next day we had more visitors. More followed that week. Of particular interest to us as a team was the elephant movement within Mwakoma community. The elephants ALWAYS made a pass by a farmer named Charity. The elephants left more than their footprints. They uprooted Charity’s cassava and, gleaned her pigeon peas. The said crops were outside her bee-hive fenced portion of the farm. From the footprints, the eles would deliberately avoid the fenced portion of her farm. We also observed how one of the elephants strayed from the herd and went to test the fence. A few meters away, the ele stopped and turned to follow the herd. In one of the farms neighbouring to the west of Charity’s, Judah had a visit from an elephant. He says he heard some noise outside his goat boma. There had been cases of hyenas crossing from the Tsavo East and coming into community land and, he thought the noise was being made by a hyena trying to break into his goat boma. He picked his panga/machete, and went outside to make sure nothing was going to happen. It was pitch black and he says he heard something walking away from his farm. He was determined to finish off the “hyena”. A few meters from the object of his wrath, he says he heard a loud “scream” (trumpet?), and he froze. His “enemy” had grown in size. The elephant, having noticed Judah was trailing him, had turned and trumpeted at him. The elephant was now charging at Judah. Judah on realizing what he was up against it, decided to run for his life. A few strides later, he fell. The elephant charged at the last spot he saw Judah, turning its rage on a small tree near where Judah had fallen. The elephant uprooted the tree with fury. Judah was still frozen lying on the ground as he saw the huge “mountain” furiously break and uproot the tree above him. The elephant left him lying on the ground. When Judah was narrating how he thought it was a hyena attempting to “steal” his goats and only to discover it was an elephant, he was jovial and making light of the situation. We were laughing too. Not at his ordeal, but how he was describing his ordeal. As we left Judah, I was thinking of the impact of this event and, Charity’s farm invasions, in our efforts to change the attitude of the community towards wildlife and, elephants in particular. There would be local residents who would see it as an added reason to hate elephants and demand they be “locked up” within the park. A farmer in a nearby village was killed by an elephant a few days after. This latter event wasn’t helping the situation.

How do you tell someone who lives in constant negative contact with elephants that wildlife should be conserved? Conserved to benefit who? This is a question the youth I interact with once asked me. The community has to deal with inadequate rainfall and, subsequent little or no harvest. In most cases, elephants then invade their farms and take whatever little they have farmed. They say their Taita Taveta County is taken over by the Tsavo parks and yet, the benefits they hear wildlife accrues from tourism “doesn’t get to them”. “Infact, this very wildlife is making life unbearable,” one guy lamented to me. From my own experience in Kasigau, these communities don’t want sympathy. They want someone to care for their plight with wildlife. I have had non bee-hive fence farmers describe me as “watu wa nyuki” – the beehive guys. Insomuch as the beehive fence isn’t in every farm, people see the little effort we put in the community a sign that we care about their plight. The kids love the film shows we take to them. The kids anxiously wait for the films every Friday afternoon. If I happen to meet up with the kids of Kileva Eastfield, they ask me if I’ll be showing them the films the following Friday. The kids are curious about and, intrigued by wildlife. They want to know more about wildlife, and showing these films is probably is the only way to begin making the kids appreciate wildlife. It probably is the only way to counter the negative attitudes that keep sprouting every time an elephant invades the farms of their parents. The beehive fences may not be in every farm but, it shows that we, as the environmentalists, do care about their plight.

Robert helping Anna conduct interviews with beehive fence farmers in Sagalla

Robert helping Anna conduct interviews with beehive fence farmers in Sagalla

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