Elephant raids that brought back life in the Amboseli wilds

Tim, one of the most famous elephants in Amboseli ecosystem that has come to be the face of human wildlife conflict.
Tim is no ordinary elephant. There are 1,400 elephants in the Amboseli National Park and then there is Tim.

Carrying some of the largest tusks on the continent, Tim has earned a reputation of being the deadliest jumbo in Amboseli. He does not move alone. You will spot him in a drove of a dozen other males or more.

Having been around for nearly five decades, the elephant in his prime has mastered the art of raids. Most of his raids happen in the deep end of the night. Whenever he strikes, he lives behind a trail of destruction.

Nearly all Maasai homesteads around Amboseli have heard of Tim or met his fury and wrath as he moves to satisfy his new-found taste for fresh vegetables, tomatoes and maize.

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But he has not always left unscathed. Tim has suffered several injuries in his dangerous raids, some nearly lethal as he plucked human settlement blocking his path in his frequent trips across the Kenya and Tanzania border.

The weight of his tusks is finally catching up with him, slowed him down significantly as the burden grows heavier. This has reduced his raids significantly in recent past but his name still strikes fear in even the bravest Maasai moran.

To contain Tim, conservationists have an app to track him down. They must get into his brain and know what he is thinking, where he plans to strike and the route he may follow.

“He has a chip on him. He comes through the corridor mostly at night when the light has been switched off at the water hole,” says Peter Gordon, a manager at Tawi Lodge in Amboseli conservancy.

Born in 1968 and at 50 years, the jumbo has become the face of human-wildlife conflict in the Amboseli that has seen conservationists come up with better incentives to keep the wildlife corridor open.

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“Besides being famous, he has become a bit infamous because he likes to go into the farms. The KWS and the Big Life Foundation rangers have to keep on chasing him out. If he sees a Big Life Foundation or a KWS vehicle, he gets a bit angry with them,” Gordon narrates.

Move at night

The latest initiative to keep Tim and other elephants away from the farms has been bees. When we visit, we find beehives perched on several trees, especially near human settlements.

Nothing causes elephants more nuisance than do buzzing bees. But this too does not work all the time because elephants prefer to move at night, when all bees are asleep.

But few locals, like Mr Wilfred Ngonze, a former warden at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), understand the night battles to keep elephants out of homesteads.

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Ngonze, who retired from the KWS as a senior warden, is now in charge of four conservancies – the Satao Elerai, Nalarami and Oltyan – that sit on about 26,000 acres of land.

The 64-year-old warden arrived at what is now Kimana Conservancy in Amboseli in the early 1990s. He had brought his boss, a social scientist, to finalise delicate talks on setting up the Kimana Sanctuary.

He says negotiating with any Maasai to give up his grazing land is one of the toughest jobs he has ever done. It is a lot tougher today because now Maasais have land ownership titles after the community land was subdivided into 60-acre plots.

“It is not a walk in the park and it takes many heated meetings. You cannot just walk to a landowner here and tell them to give up their land to be used to set up a conservancy,” Ngonze says.

“We had come to a realisation that we needed to change tack if we wanted to win the hearts and minds of the fearless Maasai morans to buy into our conservation agenda.”

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It never mattered the millions of shillings that were being pumped into communities through various projects. If one of their livestock was killed, he knew it was time to start preparing for battle the following morning.

“Communities would call for support from their colleagues from as far as Tanzania to come and help spear elephants,” Ngonze narrates.

Ngonze says despite locals knowing just how hard it was to identify which elephant or lion had attacked them without investigations, the community wanted it found immediately and terminated.

“If it took more than a day before it was terminated, you must prepare for war with the Morans the following day,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Ngonze knew that this was too important a wildlife corridor for animals travelling between Kyulu Hills and Tsavo West to let misunderstandings get in the way.

At the heart of this conservancy is the Satao Elerai Camp. Situated on its own 5,000-acre wildlife conservancy at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, the lodge has come to be known as a little oasis in the desert.

On the day we visit, his team has recorded what they have seen on a small blackboard outside the lodge.

He had sighted 66 zebras, four giraffes, 14 elands, three warthogs and 11 water bucks. These wildlife that are keeping tourists trooping back to the Amboseli.

Amboseli, which sits at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountains, is one of the most popular national parks in the region.

It offers five different habitats ranging from the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli, wetlands with sulphur springs, the Savannah and woodlands.

Tourists also visit the local Maasai community who live around the park, making it one of the cash cows for the tourist industry in the region.

But the subdivision of land outside the park, part of which makes the wildlife corridor for game moving between Kyulu Hills and Tsavo West, introduced a new challenge for conservationists.

Pressure on land use

“The biggest challenge is not even from poachers anymore but pressure on land use. We have to find new ways of keeping the corridor open,” says Kathleen Fitzgerald of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

But these are not the immediate concerns of Ngonze, the warden.

Ngonze counts the regeneration of plants and being able to see grass grow to its full maturity until there is reseeding as one of the successes.

“That means we have seeds for the grass. We are also now ensuring that it is not grazed on before it matures in line with our environmental management initiatives,” he says.

He also does range management under the hay harvesting project where his team cuts grass to allow new grass to shoot. “This opens up the landscape for grazers like zebras, water buck, the gazelles and the rest. It also attracts predators,” he says. There has been some successes and failures over the years. On a good month, he spots about 100 elephants in a day during the rainy season. But on average, he says, his team records 500 to 600 elephants in one month though there are instances when the numbers have hit 900.

The conservancy also now has six resident cheetahs who have been attracted by the antelopes in the area.

The hay is given back to the community during times of adverse weather as part of the socio-economic arm of the programme.

To keep the corridor open, conservationists have been leasing chunks of land back from the communities and paying them land use fees. The leased land is split up into various sections dedicated for either ecotourism activities, grazing areas and settlement areas.

Livestock is not allowed in the wildlife and ecotourism zone except when it is very dry.

Ngonze says the need to start conservancies became apparent as far back as 1992 when he was still a warden at the KWS.

He says at about that time KWS realised that it was no longer possible to conserve wildlife outside the parks and other protected areas using force. In the beginning, it attempted a revenue sharing programme with the communities.

The idea was to share with the communities around them what was collected within the parks. KWS was required to share at least 25 per cent of its revenues with the communities.

“After some time, it was realised that it was not possible to satisfactorily share revenue with the surrounding communities because KWS would remain with nothing to run the parks,” he says.

It was after the revenue sharing programme collapsed that an idea was mooted to establish community conservancies. There are about seven conservancies under the programme.

The AWF pays Sh700 in lease fees per acre per year on average. Every family has a 60-acre parcel and this means they earn at least Sh42,000 in lease fees annually.

“When we started, we were paying about Sh200 per acre but the pressure to have the fees revised has seen them increase every three years or so,” says Ngonze.

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