Kenya: Farmers Test 'Smart' Fences to Curb Elephant Invasions

Elephants in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

Francis Kamau boasts a large farm in the beautiful Laikipia County plains in Kenya. Each year as he prepares his land for the next crop season, a nagging question refuses to leave his mind: "Will my crop survive an elephant attack?"

Kamau, who lives in Mathira village near the Laikipia west conservancy, keeps incurring huge losses due to the wild animals that freely roam in the area, especially at night.

And it is not only the crops that are in danger. The animals also kill human beings and livestock who stumble into their path.

"The elephants come near my farm and stand on the other side of the fence. Like yesterday they cut the fence, luckily, they didn't enter my farm," Kamau tells RFI.

He notes that the wild animal invasion not only causes the farmers losses but also leads to anxiety, trauma and general food insecurity.

#farmers in #Kenya are using new smart technology to prevent #elephants from eating valuable crops, helping both 🧑🏿🌾s & 🐘s, explained by @spaceforgiants on @Africa__Calling #podcast: https://t.co/PA0YRRhJ9k-- Africa Calling (@Africa__Calling) June 11, 2022

The elephants come in their hundreds destroying fences, breaking trees, water tanks, crops and even threaten human beings and other animals says farmer and business owner Douglas Bolton.

Bolton, however, blames the government for not adequately supporting the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

"Although we see the effort of the KWS, the organisation is highly underfunded in comparison to its mandate. It has to cover big areas and at times it is difficult to follow a single marauding elephant for six days," he says.

'Smart' solution for elephants

The human-wildlife conflict in the area may soon be a thing of the past after the government and non-governmental organisations installed a smart digital fence to keep away not only the elephants but other wildlife.

The smart fence is equipped with modern technology such as cameras and sensors to monitor the movement of animals, preventing them from destroying farms. It is powered by solar energy.

The introduction of this fence has made the world of difference to Alice Mukami. She says she can cultivate her small plot of land in peace.

"In the past when we didn't have this fence, we were having problems with wild animals especially elephants," says Mukami, who has lived on her farm for about 50 years.

"If one elephant sets its foot in the farm, it destroys everything. But now we are thankful because we have expanded our fields."

She says that before the installation of the fence, she used to grow maize and potatoes, which could be destroyed by the elephants. Now she has expanded her farm to include tomatoes and beans.

Human population problem

Local officials say the human-wildlife conflict has been driven by a population explosion in an area that encroaches on the wild animals' grazing areas.

John Mundia, a village elder at Mathira sublocation, says the introduction of the digital smart fence is a game-changer for the community.

"The community is overjoyed and says that whoever installed this fence is their earthly savior. If you look around you can see large pieces of land have already been planted. No one would dare cultivate such large areas in the past," he says.

Mundia adds that large-scale farming has created jobs. In the past one would have to travel a long distance to get a job, but today, it is difficult to find workers because there are so many jobs available.

The community has also shifted to other types of farming to curb human-elephant conflict, including some farmers raising poultry, chili and other crops which are not consumed by the jumbos.

Smart technology saves elephants and people

Space for Giants, a local non-governmental organisation that works with elephants and communities, installed the smart fence in partnership with the Laikipia county government and the KWS.

The smart fence works by having protruding spikes called triggers that target the soft tissue of the elephants, says Sammy Githui, Space for Giants' human-wildlife co-existence manager.

"We have monitors that have the capability of sending messages in case there are voltages that have dropped to a certain state, and we are able to know if there was a breakage or an alarm as a result of bridge on that particular section," Githui says.

He says camera traps are mounted along the fence in specific areas where there is a lot of movement of elephants.

"This helps us to understand how they interact with the fence," says Githui. "If there is an elephant that challenges the fence, the camera traps will show this," he adds.

The group employs human 'elephant officers' who are stationed out in the field.

"They identify that footage of the particular elephant and are able to follow up, in case some continually demonstrate the same behavior," he says.

When that happens, the elephant becomes a candidate for collaring and is monitored.

Satellite monitoring

According to human-animal co-existence experts, the use of satellite monitoring system technology has been of a big help to track the movement of animals from one place to another within the parks, conservancies and around the smart fence.

The data the group regularly receives from the fence has helped reduce human-animal conflict not only with elephants, but with other animals such as rhinos, zebras and even antelopes.

If an animal breaks into the system, management teams immediately get a WhatsApp message.

"Any time we see elephants moving close to the fences or close to community land, we are able to notify KWS," says Redemptory Njeri, a data coordinator.

The group also works with a technology called Earth Ranger Platform, where one can see the position of the elephant and monitor it, adds Njeri.

Laikipia county hosts the largest wildlife population in the northern part of Kenya with a population of about 4,700 elephants. It has a high number of ranches, conservancies and pastoralists in the area.

Human-elephant conflicts are prevalent in parts of Maasai Mara national park, Nanyuki conservancy in Laikipia county and parts of Mwatate sub-county due to their proximity to Tsavo national park. The government estimates that about 100 people are killed by wild animals annually.

This story was originally heard on RFI's Africa Calling podcast.

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