Trunk and disorderly: Elephants battle humans for scarce resources in Kenya
Charlie Mitchell, The Sunday Times (of London)
September 4, 2022
The smell of rotting flesh hit long before the dead elephant came into
view, a bullet in her head, her body sprawled across a patch of scrubland a
few yards from a village in northern Kenya.
Two weeks earlier, while searching for food, the elephant and her baby had
encountered villagers on a road near the town of Archers Post in the early
evening. Intimidated by the hulking creature, people threw rocks, honked
their horns and flashed their lights. While fleeing, the elephant trampled
a middle-aged man to death. The following night she killed a second man in
similar circumstances. She disappeared for a while, but was then hunted
down and shot, leaving her baby orphaned.
David Daballen, head of field operations for the charity Save the
Elephants, placed leaves on the huge corpse as a mark of respect.
“We tried to see how we could actually save her,” he said. They attempted
to drive the elephant away with a helicopter but she kept coming back and
approaching humans. “It’s really, really sad that she killed people and
eventually the retaliation just happened.”
Stories like this are all too common today in Samburu county, a sparsely
populated slab of mountainous terrain in northern Kenya where climate
change, coronavirus and an effective crackdown on poachers have combined to
drive an alarming surge in human-elephant conflict.
Hunting of elephants that threaten humans has overtaken poaching as the
main non-natural cause of death for the animals in the region.
At least 70 elephants were killed for that reason last year in northern
Kenya, half as many as were dispatched by poachers at the height of the
illegal ivory trade.
Human fatalities and injuries are harder to quantify, but are also common.
As well as the two deaths at the village, four children were recently
injured by elephants in the area. Between 2010 and 2017, an estimated 200
people in Kenya died as a result of human-elephant conflict and a similar
number if not more are believed to have died since then.
In this new war, Archers Post with its dusty high street and rudimentary
houses is the front line. As we drove into town, two teenage elephants were
idling on the outskirts, limbering up for a night raid. In recent months,
the local secondary school has been invaded several times. Hungry elephants
even smashed through the wall of the town’s police station.
Between April and June, one resident’s home was raided five times. “It was
8pm, I was inside relaxing and then the dogs barked,” John Lenkulate said,
describing the most recent raid while standing beside a pile of elephant
dung in his garden. “Just imagine at night that huge animal comes next to
your house. How do you feel?”
Lenkulate, 53, a hospital administrator, usually chases them away by
banging on cooking pots, but as encounters grow more common, they are
becoming less afraid. “The elephants are so used to drumming and even
bullets, they don’t go any more,” he said. “The elephant menace is getting
Jackson Letoye, 73, a village elder, said: “It’s the first time seeing so
many elephants in town without fear. The little bit of green [in people’s
gardens] is bringing them here. When they come, they destroy everything.”
Killing elephants or other endangered animals is a serious offence in
Kenya, punishable by life in prison and huge fines. While communities are
tight-lipped about elephant deaths, experts say they are not carried out by
hunting parties but by well-armed local herders. In recent years weapons
have flooded into northern Kenya, many of them from war-torn Ethiopia.
In Samburu National Reserve, a former tourist hotspot where drought and
overgrazing has transformed lush savannah into a dusty red wasteland, the
bones of a long-dead elephant shot by an unknown assailant are scattered
along a dirt road. The bullet entered through the chin and emerged through
the top of its head.
Wilson Lelukumani, 44, who runs one of Save the Elephants’ rapid response
units, has the job of cooling tension when conflicts arise. He is a busy
man. “Each and every day, night hours, day hours,” he said of the
prevalence of human-elephant conflict, his foot bandaged from a recent
elephant encounter. “When you hear someone calling you, you rush to that
place before they kill that animal. But when you delay, that’s the time
they kill that animal or they chase it with bullets.”
Just a few years ago, Lelukumani was being threatened by poachers, who were
driving Samburu’s elephants towards extinction. Now the poachers are gone –
dead, jailed, won over or pursuing other activities – and he has taken to
guiding local children past unpredictable elephants on their way to school
in Archers Post.
The ivory trade has worked in cycles, from the apocalyptic 1970s and 80s
when their population halved, to the worldwide ban on ivory trading in 1989
which brought a reprieve. Then one-off legal sales to Japan and China
helped the illicit trade pick up again. Between 2010 and 2012 more than
100,000 African elephants were lost, killed for their tusks.
A combined effort by conservation organisations, governments, celebrities
and local people to stop the poaching, trafficking and demand turned the
tide, while, under international pressure, China imposed an ivory ban of
its own. In recent years, several prominent ivory traffickers have been
brought to justice.
As a result elephant populations around Samburu increased, and the
creatures started exploring again after spending decades huddling for
safety in Kenya’s national parks.
The human population has also grown, driven by advances in healthcare,
meaning elephants often wander into the informal settlements and boreholes
that are springing up in their traditional corridors. The livestock
population has also exploded, with goats and cows integral to the
traditional lifestyles of the local Samburu and Turkana tribes.
Experts say that previously pastoralists would keep their livestock out of
Kenya’s wildlife-rich national parks because the safari lodges catering for
tourists would hire their family members. But when the Covid-19 pandemic
closed down the lodges – many of them for good – all bets were off.
In rare patches of fertile land, elephants now compete for food with
thousands of goats and cattle. Sarara, one of Save the Elephants’ collared
elephants, last November hobbled into camp with a two-foot spear in its
belly, probably thrown by a youngster herding livestock.
Without treatment by a vet he would probably have died. With nothing to eat
in their traditional grazing lands, elephants are increasingly foraging in
schools and gardens or breaking into water containers.
To make matters worse, northern Kenya is experiencing its worst drought in
40 years, leaving about four million people reliant on food aid. When the
rains do come, the once verdant soil is so compromised that the water runs
straight off it.
Human-elephant conflict is playing out across Africa, including in Malawi
and Zimbabwe. In India too, conflict caused 1,401 human deaths between 2018
NGOs say it puts vital conservation efforts at risk because it makes
“Poaching was very simple. You send a picture of a mother elephant with her
face cut off and the baby standing there and everybody is going to
sympathise and send a lot of dollars,” said Daballen. “Today it could be a
community member who has been hurt, a community member has been killed,
it’s so hard, it’s so complicated.”
At the height of the poaching crisis, the eradication of wild elephants in
Africa was touted as a grim possibility. Now human-elephant conflict, if
ignored, could put it back on the agenda.
What is happening is a “tragedy”, according to Frank Pope, chief executive
of Save the Elephants. “Snakes and mosquitoes kill more Kenyans but nothing
symbolises the competition for resources between humans and animals more
visibly than conflict between elephants and humans,” he said. “Elephants
are an icon of what it means to be wild.”