Resolving years of battle between man and beast

The electric fence that is curbing perennial cases of human-elephant conflicts in Laikipia. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Laikipia-a sprawling farmland, is constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons, among them banditry and farm raids.

And for decades, James Wachira spent sleepless nights, dreading another visit by a unique brand of bandits.

These were not your usual gun-totting raiders but a bunch of elephants that Wachira knew very well he would never match in strength. 

Laikipia is home to more than 6,300 elephants that share the 4,000 square miles with farmers like Wachira.

For years, the beasts would descend on the farms, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, and sometimes, death.

Wachira cannot remember the number of times he woke up to find his hitherto blooming maize farm cleared overnight.

He and fellow farmers stood little chance in the face of the seven tonne beasts.

“They came in herds. We tried all tactics but none was working,” he says.

“It was a disaster," adds his colleague Jackson Ndegwa.

Both farmers, and hundreds of others, were almost giving up on farming and surrendering their farms to the elephants when help finally came.

The County administration and Space for Giants, an international conservation organisation, stepped in to create a bufferzone between the beasts and farmers, securing the elephants on one side and farmlands on the other.

A massive electric fence programme has been steadily snaking its way across the farmlands, ensuring that man and beast do not clash again.

With the electric fence in place,Ndegwa and fellow farmers venture out to their farms and sleep without fear. Besides, they can now farm more than maize.

Change of fortunes

"Existing with elephants without a barrier between us meant that we could not farm anything,” says Ndegwa. With the elephants gone, we can now venture into agri-business,” says Ndegwa.

Conservationists say the clash between man and beast, especially in Laikipia was inevitable.

“Human-elephant conflict is one of the most prominent conservation challenges in Africa at the moment and Laikipia has some of the highest levels of East Africa," says Maurice Schutgens, Space for Giants Laikipia programme manager.

He reckons that between 2006 and 2007, the beasts destroyed crops worth Sh100 million in Laikipia alone, a situation that besides endangering the lives of locals, also put the elephants' at risk.

The situation had rendered farming in the area unsustainable until the project kicked off in 2016.

Previously, the Government embarked on building fences within the region to reduce the conflict. But the project failed, and the elephants began making child-play of the West Laikipia Fence long before it was completed.

But according to Mr Schutgens, the new fence will be different.

“Unlike the fences which were put up before, the fences which we are putting up are three-feet high and are better wired, ensuring steady, well regulated electricity," he said.

Enormous cost

Currently, the project has covered 68km with 14 more to go, covering several parts of Laikipia West, Mutara and Ngarare areas.

Still, the cost of the project is enormous, at Sh600,000 per kilometer. Maintaining it will cost Sh80,000 per kilometer per year.

But according to its brainchild, the cost is worthwhile.

“It requires a lot of political will for such a project to run successfully, but the end result is worth it because farmers are now able to earn a livelihood and the are elephants protected,” he said.