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Kenya Farmers Face a Jumbo Problem as Elephants Encroach

Electrical barriers discourage pachyderms, whose traditional feeding ground in the forest has been lost to corruption, destruction.

June 15, 2003|Andrew England | Associated Press Writer

MT. KENYA, Kenya — Three days after an elephant gored and trampled a farmer to death, game wardens tracked down the huge bull -- whom they'd nicknamed Osama -- and fired nine .458-caliber bullets into his hulking frame.

Osama and farmer Martin Kagwe were the latest victims of the spiral of corruption and destruction in the forest that surrounds snowcapped Mt. Kenya.

The elephant's crime was bursting onto one of the farms on the edge of the forest with half a dozen others to feast on cabbages and corn, then charging at Kagwe and other farmers who were trying to drive the animals away from their crops.

Illegal logging, farms spreading into the wilderness and inept, corrupt management have brought wholesale destruction of Mt. Kenya's indigenous forest over the last two decades. That has eaten away at the elephants' traditional habitat and propelled them into conflict with humans in the fertile foothills of Africa's second-highest mountain.

So far this year, Kenya Wildlife Service rangers have killed at least eight elephants. Last year they shot two, while farmers killed 11.

Mt. Kenya National Forest Reserve covers 850 square miles around the base of the 16,893-foot mountain and is home to about 2,000 elephants as well as buffalo, waterbuck, bushbuck, wild pigs, rhinos, monkeys and other wildlife.

Until three years ago, the reserve was managed by Kenya's Forest Department, which environmentalists say was deliberately crippled under former President Daniel Arap Moi so that the forest could be exploited commercially. Moi became president in 1978 and, for the next 20 years, swathes of indigenous trees were felled by logging companies, many of them connected to high-powered politicians and their families.

The "shamba" system that was supposed to use farmers to plant trees within the forest also became corrupt and ineffective, said Bongo Woodley, the Wildlife Service's senior warden for Mt. Kenya.

The system, introduced in 1910 by the British colonial administration, allows farmers to cultivate small plots of forest land as long as they plant tree seedlings among their crops. After three years, the farmer is supposed to leave the shamba -- a Kiswahili word meaning plot or garden -- and allow the trees to take over.

But because the Forest Department managed the system poorly, farmers stayed on and took over large sections of the forest, burning wood for charcoal, growing marijuana and snaring wildlife to sell as meat.

A 1999 Wildlife Service survey found no seedlings growing on 76% of the area under the shamba system, while marijuana plots covered 494 acres.

After a public outcry over the report, the Wildlife Service took over Kenya's largest forest in July 2000. Since then, game wardens have arrested 1,200 people for illegal logging, charcoal-making and poaching. All were farmers in the shamba system, Woodley said.

"You cannot protect wildlife and maintain the shamba system because we have encroached so much on wildlife that we have made it impossible for them to live in their natural habitat in peace," said Wangari Maathai, an activist and assistant environment minister in the government.

Maathai was appointed by President Mwai Kibaki, who took office Dec. 30 after leading an opposition alliance to a historic election victory that ended the 39-year rule of Moi's Kenya African National Union party.

Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition government has promised widespread reform, including protecting parks and forests that are vital sources of income in a country that has few other natural resources.

Woodley said the only solution to the elephant problem is to fence areas like the forest reserve, creating corridors for the animals to move to other traditional feeding areas, such as the Aberdares, 25 miles to the southwest.

But the Wildlife Service does not have the money to put up enough of the needed 5,000- to 8,000-volt electric fences -- at a cost of about $21,000 a mile.

Joachim Kagiri of the Wildlife Service said 932 miles of fence would be needed around areas like Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares to reduce the conflict between animals and humans by 80%.

So at night, elephants keep coming into farm areas.

"We cannot sleep well. At 10 p.m., we switch off the radio and if something makes noise, we know the elephants are here," said Siras Tatobu, whose cabbages and corn were being eaten the night Kagwe was killed by Osama. "When they are eating, it's very hard to scare them

Farmers summon neighbors by banging pots and pans, then they try to scare the elephants away with torches.

When Wildlife Service rangers are alerted, they fire gunshots into the air and throw firecrackers at the elephants, but that doesn't always work.

As a last resort, rangers pepper the animals with shotgun pellets, which sting and frighten them but cause no serious harm.

But Woodley worries that unless a comprehensive solution is found, more elephants will have to be killed. "You literally have to destroy them because if they kill people once, they will kill again without compunction."

He wants the shamba system ended and believes that farmers will have to put up their own fences to fend off elephants.

Farmers in Sagana, a village on the southwestern edge of the forest, did just that after elephants repeatedly destroyed their crops.

The 300 farmers contributed $13 to $19 each and got $20,000 from a European Union development fund. Now a 6-mile, solar-powered electric fence keeps elephants at bay.

"They were coming daily, eating and destroying everything we planted. About three farmers were killed," said John Macharia Geshimu, treasurer of the farmers' committee. "Now we can plant virtually anything, and people are not hungry like before.... We enjoy seeing them on the other side."

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