The Star (Nairobi)

2 January 2013

Kenya: Fighting Elephants to Get an Education

The issue of human wildlife conflict is becoming the norm in Kenya. The news has been rife with stories about wildlife killed by residents living near the parks or people injured by wildlife for encroaching their territory. This conflict is more real for the students of Mwakitau Secondary School.

The secondary school is located in the heart of Tsavo, and the students and teachers live with the knowledge that an elephant could break the wire fence of their school compound in search of water and food anytime of day. When this happens they are stranded in class till the elephant gets bored and wanders away or the KWS rangers come to chase it away.

"Classes usually get delayed when the elephants break into the school. We are always watching them because we are not sure of their next move. Sometimes we also have to leave school early so we can get home before it is dark to avoid meeting them again, said Form 2 student, Julian Mzembi.

Their biggest fear is that one-day they will encounter the huge mammals on their way to school or from school.

This was a real experience for Justin Mwanyagha, a form four student of the school. He usually rides his bike to school and one unfortunate day, he came face to face with an elephant.

"They can smell humans before you come upon them. They have a strong sense of smell and once they do, they attack immediately. That happened to me, the minute I saw it, I ran for my life. I managed to get away but I fell and and bruised my arm. I'm glad I got away."

Mwanyagha lives 7 km from the school in Msorongo. His daily routine requires that he wakes up at 5am to prepare from school and leave the house at 6am to be able to get to class by 8am. "It is usually dark by the time I leave the house time but I'm used to it. I have done this for four years now."

To help reduce the stress of fighting the elephants on their way to school and from school, KWS has funded a project to build a dormitory in the school that will house 104 students in the school and improve teacher student contact.

Mwanyagha who is the head of the Geography club hopes to join KWS in future in the tourism management arena after his education. He believes the dormitory will be a big help to students who have to travel long distances to get to school.

"When we have exams your mind is too tired to concentrate on reading at night but we make an effort. With the dormitory we can all relax after class and attend preps without any stress," he said.

The school was originally a polytechnic that was converted to a high school for boys and girls. It stared with 10 students and now has 163 students with a single stream for each year.

"KWS is always looking for ways to involve the community in conservation. As a process they have included partnerships that foster that relationship. The school dormitory is expected to be complete in six or seven months," said Benjamin Kavu, the wildlife director for community enterprise.

During the event of the foundation for the domitory, Kavi said, I am thankful for the KWS efforts at conservation and alleviating the rampant human wild life conflict. If you allow us to adopt the school we will do it. But you can't ask us to build new schools because things have to be done systematically."

He advised the students to "take care of the dormitory and be good leaders and not to be destructive when they have grievances to raise."

Bernard Ndenda, the regional Engineer at Tsavo said the dormitory will be a modern one. It will have cubicals which can take up to four beds each and accommodate up to 104 girls. "The issue is real. You don't expect to just walk around here anyhow. It is real. Even with the fencing the elephants can walk in and do whatever they like. They have a way to detect whether a fence has electricity. If it does they break a dried tree stump and short circuit the fence to gain entry."

The Chief guest, Margaret Mwakima who is the vice-chair of the KWS Board of Trustees noted: "It is symbolic of KWS to improve the livelihoods of the locals. Marauding elephants have paralysed learning, KWS efforts to alleviate this problem and ensure that the students performance and that of the overall school is at per with others (in the county) by eradicating conflict with wildlife."

Mwakima said an 80 km electric fence is currently under construction from Mwakitau to Ndii. Its completion will drastically reduce conflicts between human and elephants. She however advised the local community to embrace wildlife conservation as it was the most suitable form of land use instead of agriculture.

"Presently, there are 28 ranches adjacent to the Tsavo Conservation area which should ideally be transformed into wildlife conservancies. These have higher returns on the local and national economy than the current subsistence agriculture and livestock keeping,"she said.

The Ministry of forestry and wildlife has spent a total of Sh78 million in support of development projects in areas prone to human-wildlife conflicts in Taita Taveta County. The funds have mainly been used in the Kenya Wildlife Service corporate social responsibility programmes covering education, health and water provision.

Local leaders urged the government to speed up the enactment of the proposed new Wildlife Act that enhances compensation for injuries sustained from wildlife and human deaths. The acting PS Lawrence Mwadime assured the residents that the Wildlife Bill is now before the Cabinet and expressed hope that it will be enacted before the end of the current parliament.

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