Night of the Crop-raiding Elephants
By Njambi Maingi, Kenyan Intern on the Elephants and Bees Project, Tsavo
The night of Friday, the tenth of January 2014, marked the first crop-raid of the season in the Mwakoma Village( Sagalla, Voi). I can’t say whether it was lucky or unlucky that we were around to witness the event, but it was good that we were around, because monitoring elephant activity in the farming area is one of the research avenues that the elephant and bees project intends to delve in starting this year. Our local go-to guy, a village elder named Nzumu, got a call early that evening, saying that the elephants were passing through farms close by. We, Carley, Tara, Imran and I, had barely sat down to have our supper; luckily it was an early meal! Fueled by adrenaline and the excitement of the first crop-raid in the village, we ate in a rush, quickly got into the car and drove out into the farms to get a feel of the situation. (NOTE TO READER: It is never advisable for inexperienced individuals to go out into the night, tracking wild and frightened elephants, but we were under the strict guidance of Nzumu, took great caution of the wind direction i.e. making sure that we were always downwind, and that we were many steps ahead of the elephants. This was necessary, as we needed to get primary information on the active methods used by the farmers to ward off oncoming elephants.)
It was a brightly lit night; the moving shadows made by the thicket bush gave it an eerie feel. There was tension in the air so thick you could slice it with a bread knife. “Ai-ya..ah-ah..ai-ya…” were the loud cries made buy shouting men and women accompanied by the regular beating of their plastic water drums. At this point, the situation was clearly out of our control, there is nothing much anyone can do when elephants break into and terrorize your ‘shamba’, but to wait for the elephants to move away and hope that the damage done was not too much.
After the farms have been raided (none of our ten beehive fence protected farms were damaged), it is common knowledge amongst the locals that the elephants head towards a nearby water pan to rehydrate. Everyone knows that any good meal needs the accompaniment of a good drink, right? We hence decided to stake out by the water source to see if this was true.
Soon enough, silhouettes of elephants begun to emerge from the darkness of the thicket beyond, one by one, towards the water. Some moved right into the middle of the pond for a swim as others claimed their spots by its beach and started guzzling. Engrossed in the splendor of being just meters away from the mighty African elephants, we quietly watched their shaky images reflected upon the water’s surface, we were able to count not less than eight ele’s this way, including small elephant calves. Using the moonlight and our down-wind position to our advantage we got a first-hand view of nocturnal elephant interaction. The playful calves blew bubbles in the water while several bouts of spurring erupted, amongst presumably, the sub-adult males. The clashing of tusks was an unmistakable sound amidst the silent night, it was like we had just been handed VIP tickets to a high profile wrestling match.
Suddenly, they all went still, and their dark skins camouflaged with the rest of the night, as if they were playing a game of freeze. The wind had changed direction for a few minutes, and most of the elephants were able to catch a whiff of our scent. Slowly, they retreated back into the dark thicket from which they came from. That was the end of our long night.
Early the next morning we went and examined the farms of which the elephants had chosen to visit. Otherwise cheerful farmers, this day their faces were filled with gloom and despair. All their hard earned labour, tarnished in one night. The damage that just one elephant can do is astounding, what happens when there are three of them? What were the farmers and their families meant to eat during the dry season? That was when it hit us, that an elephant crop-raid was nothing to be excited about. All we could do was to fill out our crop-raiding report form, take footprint measurements, call the KWS to relay the information we had received, and assure the farmers that soon, through our research we will find better solutions to mitigate this problem.
We took the chance to go back by the water pan to search for more prints, not surprisingly, some of them matched those we took at the farms, and by examining the fresh dung we came across, we found maize kernels and watermelon seeds, sure evidence of crop- raiding elephants in the area.