By MELISSA HECKSCHER
VOI, Kenya — Felix Mdamu remembers his long walk to school outside the rural village of Reukinga in southern Kenya. The 6 a.m. trek took about 45 minutes — 30 at a runner’s pace — on a straightaway through clusters of mud homes and scattered patches of farmland. And while he and his four siblings got used to the length of the 6 a.m. trip, there was always one caveat:
Elephants. Watch out for elephants.
”It was really scary,” Mdamu said, looking down at his hands and remembering how one of his friends was killed by an elephant while tending to his family’s cattle. ”If we heard elephants during the night, our parents would tell us, ‘Fine, you don’t have to go to school.”’
Now 24, Mdamu works for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). He is one of many researchers and scientists studying ways to mitigate conflict between people and elephants around Tsavo National Park, the country’s largest game reserve.
Human-elephant conflict (HEC), a phenomenon common enough to lead conservationists and scientists in 1997 to create an HEC Task Force to address the issue, is defined as any encounter with elephants that results in either injury, death, or a destruction of crops and property.
According to a 2000 KWS report, there were 1448 such incidents in the Tsavo area from July 1994 to June 1997, most of which involved crop-raiding elephants. Villages most susceptible were those neighboring the national parks, where mostly unfenced borders allow animals to walk freely in and out of park land.
For an elephant, being closer to people means being closer to food. A farm full of ripe, sweet, crops such as bananas, corn, and sugarcane can be an irresistible treat for an elephant used to dining on twigs, acacia trees, and bark. According to a World Wildlife Fund report, Kenyan wildlife authorities kill between 50 to 120 elephants a year as a result of the animals threatening humans or crops.
It isn’t just happening in Kenya. In India, elephants kill more than 100 people per year, according to the WWF, and damage homes and crops. And in northern Mozambique, elephants destroy two-thirds of all crops, the conservation group said.
”Elephants don’t know human boundaries,” Mdamu said. ”They just walk anywhere.”
It’s a problem that has sparked a battle between the rural people of Kenya, many of whom depend on crops for their livelihood; and the animals that threaten to destroy that livelihood.
Kenya can’t afford to lose its elephants. They and other big game animals are some of the most valuable resources in a country where safaris and other tourism represent one of the biggest industries. But as populations increase and begin to creep into their habitat, clashes between man and animal become inevitable.
”The underlying element with conflict is human encroachment,” said Dr. Barbara McKnight, a scientist who has been studying Tsavo’s elephants for more than 15 years. ”Elephants need space. They need to move around.”
Of course elephants’ size, combined with their tendency to travel in large groups, means there isn’t much a villager can do once a pachyderm stops in for dinner. The Kenyan government forbids killing wildlife, and doing so can result in jail time. Throwing stones, banging pots and pans, lighting fires, even drawing boundaries of chili powder, a spice elephants dislike, aren’t always effective deterrents.
Often, all a person can do is wait.
”We had a neighbor who used to try to scare them away but they wouldn’t go,” Mdamu said. ”The elephants would just eat as long as they wanted to.”
Mdamu said many feel the government often chooses the wildlife — and the money it generates — over the villagers. If an elephant kills a person, the family receives little if anything in compensation — typically about $450 dollars.
”That’s not equal to someone’s life,” Mdamu said. ”That’s what people are really mad about: Tsavo is making millions, but nothing is coming back to us.”
It turns out, the conflict isn’t just between man and beast; it also affects how wildlife uses — or overuses — its own resources. Elephants can eat several hundred pounds of food and drink more than 30 gallons of water a day. When confined to smaller spaces they can turn lush lands into barren ones.
In South Africa, for instance, elephants have destroyed so much of their native habitat that officials have proposed culling the population.
”In an ideal world, humans would coexist peacefully with other life-forms in a natural state, but this is no longer possible,” South African Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk said in a public address. ”Humankind has interfered mightily with nature over the millennia. Nature has, in turn, taken its toll on human life.
”We are now faced with the prospect of having to make difficult decisions … to develop an equitable balance between the needs of humankind and the needs of nature.”
Many scientists and naturalists argue that all it takes is patience, that the destruction wrought by elephants will lead to an eventual rebirth. If people are willing to wait.
”Many people see a broken branch and cry ‘destruction,”’ wrote Daphne Sheldrick, an elephant conservationist best known for her rhino and elephant orphanages in Kenya, in an article about the impact of elephants in Tsavo. ”The branches they break become accessible to smaller creatures and the enormous amount of dung they produce in a day fertilizes the soil.”
Solutions are a long time coming. In Kenya, wildlife officials have built electric fences along the park boundary next to Voi, one of the region’s largest towns. There has been talk of building more barriers to keep elephants away from human settlements. But McKnight said keeping the elephants confined to a section of a park may lead them to overuse their resources and eventually starve.
A better fix, she said, may be to fence in the people; not the elephants. As an alternative, some researchers have also suggested constructing more water holes within the park, since competition for water is one ingredient in the H.E.C. recipe.
”Why should it be that the elephants have to be confined and the humans can do what they want? Why can’t it be that we keep humans in a general area, fence their area in to protect them, and let the elephants move around?” McKnight said. ”I think people have to make a decision — can we not live together?”
© 2007, ASSOCIATED PRESS