Kitui man cultivates tortoises as cash crop

By Standard Reporter

Voo is perhaps one of those hardly known and unrecognised areas of Kitui County with few (if any) justifications to put it on the popularity meter. Apart from its inhabitants who found themselves there naturally, very few people would have any geographical interest or emotional attachment to the hilly and rocky region.

More than 70 kilometers away from Kitui Town, Voo, if it has ever been in the news was arguably for the wrong reasons. Affected by persistent drought and famine that has deranged most parts of Ukambani for years the division is politically governed from a different district to the one it administratively belongs to leaving its residents in a state of more confusion and perhaps that’s why The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) abandoned the farm it had obtained there a decade ago leaving the strong buildings its officers occupied still standing strong.

One man has, however, decided to change tune and put the home of his ancestors into the radar of fame for other reasons apart from the obvious ones. Peter Maundu, a retired administrator and veterinary officer is daring and bold enough to do what no one else is doing in the whole of Kitui County.

Having seen and read the unfavourable signs from the emerging severe climatic conditions that rainfall may never be sufficient to sustain crops in lower Ukambani, Maundu chose to change tact and engage his land, that lies directly opposite to the farm KARI abandoned a decade ago into a Tortoise Farm and the man is keeping over 250 tortoises in that 5 acre piece of land, selling his products to reptile eating countries like Germany and China.

In his alternative farming, Maundu keeps two species of tortoises; The Leopard and The Pancake, types found in east Africa and some parts of southern Africa only.

The leopard is large and round like a foot ball and attractively marked with leopard like spots on its shell while the Pancake is thin and flat with a flexible shell. Its shell also bears many openings that increase it agility, making it lighter to fit in its hilly and rocky habitats.

 “When I realised crop farming is not promising nowadays, I chose to engage my land into a different type of farming and I do not regret” says the farmer.

A former agricultural officer in the veterinary department in Voo his home division, Maundu started his reptile farm in 2003 setting aside 5 acres of his land to keep the few animals he was buying from fellow villagers. This was after the Kenya Wildlife Service in collaboration with the Museums of Kenya found in a just concluded research the region had the highest population of the Pancake type of tortoises.

A rocky region, Voo, was documented as one suitable area that could be considered for the management program of the Pancake Tortoise which was facing extinction being endangered than any other dry land tortoise. Maundu who had just retired from administration as Assistant Chief capitalised on those findings and before long he was effortlessly pursuing the wildlife authorities to grant him a license to start an animal farm.

“It was not easy to acquire the Paper. I had to travel to and fro Nairobi for many occasions. I spend much of my money and time before KWS finally gave in and gave me the license, three years after application” said the farmer

KWS also had its terms and conditions before granting a license to the courageous man. With the imminent extinction of the Pancake Tortoise in the country, it was a prerequisite for the farm to be located on an area habitable for the reptiles since they are naturally reclusive and thrive well on mountainous locales so as to boost their proliferation. He was also asked to provide quarterly reports on how the reptiles were doing.

The farmer also had to assure the office that he had enough food, water and security for the reptiles with the office giving him a list of the foods he should have for both mature tortoises and hatchlings.  

After registering the farm, Maundu immediately announced in his division that he was buying the reptiles and though most people took it as joke, the few who took him seriously made some money from an animal they knew so little about and assumed to be of no importance in the ecosystem.

“I was buying a mature tortoise for Sh500 and the little ones went for Sh200 to motivate the people to bring me more if they found any” said Maundu.

Just like in any other type of animal farming, the farmer had to stock more females than males and was advised to keep them at a ratio of three females to one male but his main hurdle was to distinguish male and female.

“The females are bigger, grow slower and are less active than the males with a flat plastron,” Maundu explains.

In a county whose residents are well over-reliant on unreliable natural rain for crop farming, Maundu is reaping from what his neighbours call “funny” farming.

“I sold 100 leopards to Germany in December, one going for two thousand shillings”,  the tortoise farmer said.

However, the farmer faces challenges. In February 2010, Maundu entered into an agreement with Exotic International (a company that deals with the exportation and importation of exotic commodities) that gave the firm the responsibility to find buyers for his products while he was to pay them via commission after sales. 

The farmer also cries foul of the long process before a successful delivery of the animals is made. When a market is found, he first has to clear with KWS before he delivers the animals. A KWS official must visit the farm also to make an observation of the number to be sold before the office consents to grant the farmer the very much needed permit. In this process Maundu is compelled to travel to and from Nairobi at least twice which is expensive and tedious for him.