The night of January 17, 1990 will forever remain etched in Patrick Njagi’s mind.
It is the night his father, Apiel Njoka, was trampled to death by an elephant that had strayed from Mt Kenya Forest.
Their home is just 100 metres from the forest. Njagi, then 17, escaped death by a whisker. He was a few metres from the elephant that trampled on his father, critically injuring him.
“It was around 9pm and we were chatting as we waited for dinner to be served. Soon, I heard sounds outside. Out of curiosity, we stepped out to find out what was happening,” Njagi says.
He adds: “I found a heard of elephants had raided our farm. They were destroying our banana plantation. I rushed back into the house and alerted my father, who was later killed as he tried to chase the beasts away.”
Njoka died an hour later as family and neighbours in Kericho village, Magumoni, Tharaka Nithi, frantically looked for a vehicle to take him to hospital.
But Njoka’s was just one among many deaths that have been caused by wild animals in the area. The animals have also impoverished farmers by destroying their crops.
Land in the area is very fertile, with plenty of rainfall. However, the fact that it sits close to the migratory routes of elephants means farmers would be lucky to harvest anything from farms.
For Njagi, his father’s death changed his life for the worst. It meant end of school for him and his six siblings as Njoka was the family’s sole breadwinner. Their mother was a housewife.
Njagi dropped out of school in Form Two. None of his siblings went beyond Standard Eight due to financial challenges. And as the first-born, Njagi had to engage in menial jobs to help his mother take care of the young ones.
But Njoka’s is just among hundreds of the families living next to the expansive Mt Kenya Forest, that have lost loved ones in attacks by elephants. Affected families are in parts of Embu, Tharaka Nithi and Meru counties.
Locals have over the years suffered deaths and loss of crops. Many others have been maimed. Elephants raid farms at night and eat crops. Other popular crops in the region are maize, sweet potatoes, arrowroot, sugarcane and avocados.
Some of the farmers have been killed or injured while trying to chase the animals from their farms.
However, the suffering is now a thing of the past, thanks to construction of an electric fence that has separated the forest from the farmlands.
The 60km fence, from River Thuci, on the boundary of Embu and Tharaka Nithi counties, to River Thingithu in Meru County, was completed in June last year.
The solar-powered fence has eight strands of electric wire. It also has a one-metre mesh at the bottom to prevent burrowing animals from crossing over into farmlands.
The fence was a joint project between the national government, Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project (UTaNRMP), Rhino Ark, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), Charitable Trust and Mt Kenya Trust.
The partners had an agreement that spelt out the role of each. The role of UTaNRMP was to buy materials needed to construct the fence and finance community sensitisation meetings.
Rhino Ark and Mt Kenya Trust took care of labour. They also provided equipment needed for construction.
KWS provided the design and technical support while KFS conducted community sensitisation with focus to encouraging communities around the forest to own the project. Local communities also provided labour.
Paul Njuguna, UTaNRMP’s Land and Environment Coordinator, said their joint efforts saw the fence completed ahead of the envisaged time, within two years instead of six.
“We should adopt the same approach in fencing the remaining section,” said Njuguna.
Rhino Ark CEO Christian Lambrechts said: “We still have more ground to cover before Mt Kenya Forest is fully fenced. We encourage more partners to come on board.”
“The age-old conflict between man and beast is one bound to escalate into an all-out confrontation as humans encroach into wildlife habitat in search of land for settlement. The relationship between humans and wildlife ought to be different, it doesn’t have to be defined by conflict,” said Faith Muthoni Livingstone, the UTaNRMP project coordinator.
The fence has also stopped illegal logging in the forests since entry and exit points are limited.
KWS assistant director Simon Gitau, a former senior warden at Mt Kenya National Park, say they are involving residents in maintaining the fence.
Elephants and other wild animals have been confined in the forest and the result is flourishing farms and peace of mind for residents.
A resident of Mucheege village, Meru County, who only identified herself as Lilian, said she was a victim of frequent attacks by the jumbos.
Lilian, a widow and a mother of one, said while some of her neighbours ventured out to chase away the animals, she never dared. “But all that is behind us now with the fence in place. Every break of dawn is a new opportunity to secure my future and that of my son by tilling our farm,” she says.
Just kilometres away, Mr and Mrs Mbaya talk of the peace that came with the fence. They have planted different crops on their farm in Luthumbi, Meru County, and a harvest is almost certain.
“Sometimes back, the land lay idle. Planting crops on it was a waste of time because they would be destroyed anyway. But as you can seen, these neat rows of cabbages are ready for harvest,” said Mr Mbaya.
Eustace Josiah, a farmer in Tharaka Nithi said the bananas he planted after the fence was erected matured in April and fetched him Sh15,000.
Njagi says his family has greatly benefited from the fence as they no longer experience attacks by wild animals.
“We see it as a little reparation for the death of our father. Since it was erected, not even a monkey has strayed into my farm. I grow maize, banana and potatoes. It’s amazing to watch them grow to maturity without being eaten by the elephants,” says Njagi.
Another beneficiary of the fence is Festus Muthanga Kiganka, a retired teacher. He bought his land in Kericho village in 1983 and relocated.
He says he was attracted to the area because the land is fertile. However, he never enjoyed farming because of invasions by wild animals.
Just when his crops promised a bountiful harvest, elephants raided the farm and destroyed all his crops.
“We tried beating empty debes to scare the animals away but it did not help much. We informed KWS officials but they did not help us much. And they never compensated us,” he says.
Dejected and bitter, Muthanga planted tea since elephants do not eat it. However, he says he can now diversify because of the fence.