Graduate Studies in the Shamba

Report written by Intentional Masters Student, Sophia Weinmann

I loved my time as an E&B intern two years ago, that I couldn’t wait to continue working with STE and their Human Elephant Coexistence program. So, when I applied for graduate school at the University of Montana I was keen combine my passion for human elephant coexistence with my Peace Corps experience working with small-scale farmers. I wanted to understand how different crops influence elephant crop-raiding behavior i.e. does what you plant matter to elephants. To explore this topic, I designed an on-farm experiment to test whether planting crops that are non-palatable to elephants can reduce elephant crop-raiding frequency and severity i.e. will elephants cause less damage if what you grow tastes bad.  After a year of coursework, meetings, and revisions I had an approved proposal and was ready to hit the ground running.

A camera trap catches two elephants visiting an experimental maize plot.

When I returned to Sagalla in August, it felt like coming home. Greeting the people, seeing the sites, and tasting the foods (especially chapati) I remembered so fondly was wonderful and made the sleepless nights and countless hours in the library worth it. To start my research, I visited with farmers and community leaders to explain my project objectives and discuss possible study locations. After a community meeting, I partnered with ten local farmers, and we worked together to establish experimental plots on their farms. At each experimental farm plot, I planted three crops: maize (a known elephant favourite) alongside sunflowers and moringa (two crops that are potentially non-palatable to elephants).

Taking a break from weeding and data collection to drink water and enjoy the beauty of Sagalla Hill.

Throughout the growing season, I visit the farms weekly to weed and collect data on plant developmental stage and individual plant health (e.g. lack of water, rodent damage, livestock foraging, etc.). Whenever elephants visit a farm, the farmer notifies STE, and we record additional information about the crop-raid incident including the number of crop-raiding elephants, time of raid, and severity of damage caused by elephant foraging and trampling.

Digging holes to plant moringa seedlings.

While it’s still too early say whether or not sunflowers and moringa can reduce elephant crop-raiding behavior, I’ve learned several important lessons about farming in elephant country that I’d like to share:

The first maize push their way out into the sun.

1) Never, and I mean ever, plant your crops near a known squirrel den. Squirrels don’t care that you are working hard on your graduate project. They will eat every single seed, even when you’ve replanted two and three times and leave your fields barren. Any seeds that miraculously manage to sprout will be mercilessly ripped from the ground by the squirrels’ partners in crime and destruction: baboons.

2) Pre-test your batch of seeds before planting all your fields. Failure to do so will result in a sinking feeling in your stomach and require additional hours of re-planting.

3) The Kenyan sun is hot, hot, hot! When planting, weeding, walking, or just breathing here make sure to wear a hat, lather on the sunscreen, and drink lots of water!

A sure sign of elephant crop-raiding: uprooted maize.

Data entry is calling, so I have to sign off, but thanks for stopping by and letting me share my project with you. Look forward to the next exciting update from Elephants and Bees.


Five months after planting, the moringa are still growing strong!



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