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Environment : A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL : The death of a man trampled by an elephant from a Kenyan preserve has fueled debate : over animal rights. It is not an easy issue for the caretakers of the endangered species.

July 13, 1993|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — Nearly deaf, Jeremiah Kilango couldn't hear the herd of elephants encircling him while he tended cattle deep in the African bush. Neighbors tried to warn him, but Kilango, absorbed in his flock, didn't notice their frantic gestures.

As his fellow villagers watched helplessly, the 50-year-old was trampled to death by a two-ton bull elephant less than a quarter-mile from his home. Wildlife officials believe the elephants were on their way to a watering hole when they encountered him; it's unclear why their leader attacked.

But the incident last month on the outskirts of Tsavo East National Park offered a grisly look at the flip side of the conservation coin.

According to Kenyan wildlife officials, three to four people are killed every year in the Tsavo park by bands of elephants who wander away from the gigantic game preserve and wreak havoc on neighboring villages. Although exact statistics are hard to come by, local officials believe such attacks are becoming more common.

Besides killing and injuring people, elephants have squashed and devoured millions of dollars worth of crops vital to the survival of thousands of subsistence farmers.

"It's a question of who gets to eat the maize--the elephant or the man," said Peter Ndwiga, a member of Parliament who has introduced an amendment that would require the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife to set aside 25% of its revenue to compensate farmers for their losses. He said more than $3 million is owed to farmers in outstanding damage claims.

The issue is a sensitive one for the caretakers of the country's endangered species.

Kenya's biggest money-maker is its tourism industry, which generated about $212 million in 1991 (the latest figures available), surpassing revenue from the country's coffee and tea exports, according to the government's central bureau of statistics in Nairobi. It is an industry that relies on the presence of elephants, rhinos, lions and other exotic animals to lure foreign visitors to Kenya's lucrative game parks.

In a highly publicized crackdown, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi has declared war on poachers who slaughter elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns. More than 110,000 elephants were killed over the last 20 years, according to official estimates. Rangers have been ordered to shoot poachers on sight, sparking a bloody conflict that has resulted in casualties on both sides.

The elephants also have powerful friends abroad. The animal preservation movement is funded largely by wealthy American and European environmentalists who donate millions of dollars for the protection of wildlife species poached to near-extinction.

Yet many times, these same protected animals inflict very real losses upon the human communities whose survival also depends upon dwindling supplies of land, water and other natural resources. As the human population increases, so do the conflicts between people and animals.

Needless to say, a peasant farmer's opinion of elephants is far different from that of a foreign tourist on safari.

"For Americans, watching elephants is fun because they don't suffer any losses," said Kiraitu Murungi, a member of Parliament, "but when you are a villager and you hear there's an elephant, the first thing you do is go and grab a spear."

Confrontations often occur when farmers attempt to chase the elephants away from their fields. Sometimes the animals, who are hungry, fight back. To make matters worse, elephants have been poached to such an extent that many have become hostile toward humans.

Elephants, of course, are not the only culprits. Wild pigs, buffalo, baboons, porcupines and birds also help themselves to crops.

But it is the elephants who have provoked the greatest outcry.

"People are actually being placed under curfew by these big animals," said Boy Juma Boy, chief whip in Parliament whose district includes the Shimba Hills wildlife refuge in southeastern Kenya. "We're not saying eliminate them but let them be placed where they belong so people can live comfortably."

One recent evening, he said, a herd of elephants invaded an elementary school where the children were taking part in extracurricular activities. The elephants were apparently attracted by the smell of water from an outdoor well on the school grounds.

"All of a sudden, these huge animals started coming into the school," Boy said. "Fortunately, it was still a bit light, and a few students saw them and started shouting. Some villagers who were passing by managed to scare them off."

The situation at the 52-square-mile park is similar to that at Tsavo and other game preserves. A heavily traveled road runs smack through the park. Villagers who must use it complain that they are frequently confronted by wild animals.

Gibran Mwangolo, a 26-year-old public works employee, said he and his neighbors live in constant fear of elephants. He lives in Ikanga, a tiny village that borders Tsavo.

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