Kenya Elephant raids that brought back life in the Amboseli wilds
Paul Wafula, The Standard
September 17, 2017
Tim is no ordinary elephant. There are 1,400 elephants in the Amboseli
National Park and then there is Tim. Carrying some of the largest tusks on
the continent, Tim has earned a reputation of being the deadliest jumbo in
Amboseli. He does not move alone. You will spot him in a drove of a dozen
other males or more.
Having been around for nearly five decades, the elephant in his prime has
mastered the art of raids. Most of his raids happen in the deep end of the
night. Whenever he strikes, he lives behind a trail of destruction. Nearly
all Maasai homesteads around Amboseli have heard of Tim or met his fury and
wrath as he moves to satisfy his new-found taste for fresh vegetables,
tomatoes and maize. But he has not always left unscathed. Tim has suffered
several injuries in his dangerous raids, some nearly lethal as he plucked
human settlement blocking his path in his frequent trips across the Kenya
and Tanzania border. The weight of his tusks is finally catching up with
him, slowed him down significantly as the burden grows heavier. This has
reduced his raids significantly in recent past but his name still strikes
fear in even the bravest Maasai moran.
To contain Tim, conservationists have an app to track him down. They must
get into his brain and know what he is thinking, where he plans to strike
and the route he may follow. ?He has a chip on him. He comes through the
corridor mostly at night when the light has been switched off at the water
hole,? says Peter Gordon, a manager at Tawi Lodge in Amboseli conservancy.
Born in 1968 and at 50 years, the jumbo has become the face of
human-wildlife conflict in the Amboseli that has seen conservationists come
up with better incentives to keep the wildlife corridor open. ?Besides
being famous, he has become a bit infamous because he likes to go into the
farms. The KWS and the Big Life Foundation rangers have to keep on chasing
him out. If he sees a Big Life Foundation or a KWS vehicle, he gets a bit
angry with them,? Gordon narrates.
Move at Night
The latest initiative to keep Tim and other elephants away from the farms
has been bees. When we visit, we find beehives perched on several trees,
especially near human settlements. Nothing causes elephants more nuisance
than do buzzing bees. But this too does not work all the time because
elephants prefer to move at night, when all bees are asleep. But few
locals, like Mr Wilfred Ngonze, a former warden at the Kenya Wildlife
Service (KWS), understand the night battles to keep elephants out of
homesteads. Ngonze, who retired from the KWS as a senior warden, is now in
charge of four conservancies ? the Satao Elerai, Nalarami and Oltyan ? that
sit on about 26,000 acres of land.
The 64-year-old warden arrived at what is now Kimana Conservancy in
Amboseli in the early 1990s. He had brought his boss, a social scientist,
to finalise delicate talks on setting up the Kimana Sanctuary. He says
negotiating with any Maasai to give up his grazing land is one of the
toughest jobs he has ever done. It is a lot tougher today because now
Maasais have land ownership titles after the community land was subdivided
into 60-acre plots.
?It is not a walk in the park and it takes many heated meetings. You cannot
just walk to a landowner here and tell them to give up their land to be
used to set up a conservancy,? Ngonze says. ?We had come to a realisation
that we needed to change tack if we wanted to win the hearts and minds of
the fearless Maasai morans to buy into our conservation agenda.? It never
mattered the millions of shillings that were being pumped into communities
through various projects. If one of their livestock was killed, he knew it
was time to start preparing for battle the following morning.
?Communities would call for support from their colleagues from as far as
Tanzania to come and help spear elephants,? Ngonze narrates. Ngonze says
despite locals knowing just how hard it was to identify which elephant or
lion had attacked them without investigations, the community wanted it
found immediately and terminated. ?If it took more than a day before it was
terminated, you must prepare for war with the Morans the following day,? he
Despite these challenges, Ngonze knew that this was too important a
wildlife corridor for animals travelling between Kyulu Hills and Tsavo West
to let misunderstandings get in the way.
At the heart of this conservancy is the Satao Elerai Camp. Situated on its
own 5,000-acre wildlife conservancy at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, the
lodge has come to be known as a little oasis in the desert. On the day we
visit, his team has recorded what they have seen on a small blackboard
outside the lodge.
He had sighted 66 zebras, four giraffes, 14 elands, three warthogs and 11
water bucks. These wildlife that are keeping tourists trooping back to the
Amboseli, which sits at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa?s tallest
mountains, is one of the most popular national parks in the region. It
offers five different habitats ranging from the dried-up bed of Lake
Amboseli, wetlands with sulphur springs, the Savannah and woodlands.
Tourists also visit the local Maasai community who live around the park,
making it one of the cash cows for the tourist industry in the region. But
the subdivision of land outside the park, part of which makes the wildlife
corridor for game moving between Kyulu Hills and Tsavo West, introduced a
new challenge for conservationists.
Pressure on Land Use
?The biggest challenge is not even from poachers anymore but pressure on
land use. We have to find new ways of keeping the corridor open,? says
Kathleen Fitzgerald of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). But these are
not the immediate concerns of Ngonze, the warden.
Ngonze counts the regeneration of plants and being able to see grass grow
to its full maturity until there is reseeding as one of the successes.
?That means we have seeds for the grass. We are also now ensuring that it
is not grazed on before it matures in line with our environmental
management initiatives,? he says.
He also does range management under the hay harvesting project where his
team cuts grass to allow new grass to shoot. ?This opens up the landscape
for grazers like zebras, water buck, the gazelles and the rest. It also
attracts predators,? he says. There has been some successes and failures
over the years.
On a good month, he spots about 100 elephants in a day during the rainy
season. But on average, he says, his team records 500 to 600 elephants in
one month though there are instances when the numbers have hit 900.
The conservancy also now has six resident cheetahs who have been attracted
by the antelopes in the area. The hay is given back to the community during
times of adverse weather as part of the socio-economic arm of the
programme. To keep the corridor open, conservationists have been leasing
chunks of land back from the communities and paying them land use fees. The
leased land is split up into various sections dedicated for either
ecotourism activities, grazing areas and settlement areas.
Livestock is not allowed in the wildlife and ecotourism zone except when it
is very dry. Ngonze says the need to start conservancies became apparent as
far back as 1992 when he was still a warden at the KWS. He says at about
that time KWS realised that it was no longer possible to conserve wildlife
outside the parks and other protected areas using force. In the beginning,
it attempted a revenue sharing programme with the communities. The idea was
to share with the communities around them what was collected within the
parks. KWS was required to share at least 25 per cent of its revenues with
?After some time, it was realised that it was not possible to
satisfactorily share revenue with the surrounding communities because KWS
would remain with nothing to run the parks,? he says. It was after the
revenue sharing programme collapsed that an idea was mooted to establish
community conservancies. There are about seven conservancies under the
programme. The AWF pays Sh700 in lease fees per acre per year on average.
Every family has a 60-acre parcel and this means they earn at least
Sh42,000 in lease fees annually. ?When we started, we were paying about
Sh200 per acre but the pressure to have the fees revised has seen them
increase every three years or so,? says Ngonze.