9 September 2005

Kenya: Villagers Dig Trench to Keep Elephants At Bay

Nairobi — For a long time residents of Laikipia District have been in conflict with elephants. The wild animals have killed, maimed and wrecked havoc on private farms. Now, the locals have resolved that enough is enough.

The community is digging a 42km-long moat around their homesteads.

The trench will cut off Bondeni, Siron, Mutamaiyu, Limunga and Kianugu in Rumuruti Division from the reach of the animals.

"We have already done over 12km... we will finish the rest slowly by slowly," said an upbeat, Mr Alexander Kiago, the project manager.

"No one is guaranteed that his wheat or maize crop will mature for harvesting," Joseph Kigera of Siron said.

Last month, two elephants destroyed his three-acre citrus fruit trees and maize after pulling down his fence. The locals think the conflict started in the 1990's when the vast forest cover was subdivided and subsequently cleared for settlement.

Initially, elephants used to roam between Samburu, Laikipia and Isiolo districts. But due to drastic weather changes, the beasts have had to migrate further from their habitat.

"As such, there is a stiff competition between domestic and wild animals causing bitter often violent conflicts," Mrs Jane Gitau, a Kenya Wildlife Service Warden said.

In a 1999 elephant population census, 5,000 were found in the three districts.

"Without the degradation of the forests, such a population can easily be supported without much problems," she says.

In 2001, KWS initiated a plan to relocate some of the elephants to the Meru National Park.

The Sh11 million project was abandoned mid-way.

"We relocated four bulls from Rumuruti to Meru but they went back after four weeks," Julius Kimani the immediate former KWS senior warden in charge of the area says. Kimani fears that it might take more time before another plan is initiated.

Kamau Kihara says previously, the elephant herds visited a salt lick in Rumuruti between August and December.

"Nowadays they do not leave Rumuruti and invade our farms from there," says Kihara.

But he agrees that human settlement has disrupted the life of the wild animals.

"They are just learning the survival of the fittest tactics after the invasion of their homes by humans," he says.

Farmers have suffered immense losses due to invasion of their fields by the animals.

At least 10 people have lost their lives after the elephants trampled on them in the last one decade.

Ranch owners have been accused of deliberately letting the elephants from their expansive farms roam into adjacent crop fields.

"They release the animals to our farms after switching off their electric fences in the dry season, " claims Waigwa Kariuki, a farmer at Kinamba.

But a renowned conservator, Kuki Gallman , who owns the 100,000-acre Laikipia Ranching Company , brushes off the accusations. She says elephants are wild animals and no private rancher has control over them.

"I never brought any elephants from Italy and it is by sheer luck that they find refuge in my farm where the forest has not been depleted," Gallman said. An effort to erect electric fences using solar powered energy has been an option to many farmers.

The implementation, though, is too expensive to carry out due to maintenance costs. Simon Wachira says it cost him over Sh120,000 to put up a 500 metre-fence which he said was of little help.

"It requires a solar panel of 120 watts, cables, batteries, converters and other materials to put up... it is too expensive," says Wachira.

With the support of local leaders the community has been mobilised to undertake the project.

What started as a minor undertaking in mid June, has now picked momentum and by October it is expected that the elephants will be under control. The moat is 9 feet deep and 2 feet wide.

"It will ensure that no animals crosses it unless it is silted with soil and other materials," says Kiago.

Laikipia West MP, G G Kariuki hopes that the trench will help minise the huge costs of human/wildlife conflict.

He regrets that the Government has never compensated the losses even after making formal claims. Kariuki's Wildlife Management (Amendment) Bill 2004 is yet to receive President's Assent.

Among the issues addressed in the Bill include enhanced compensation for a human life lost though wild animals from Sh10,000 to Sh1 million.

Crops, too, were to be compensated unlike in the current legislation, which does not recognise loss of private property to wildlife.

The Government is assisting the project through a food-for-work programme. So far 437 bags of maize and beans have been distributed.

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