New tunnel cuts elephant attacks

Elephants moving along the corridor beneath the Meru-Nanyuki highway. The over 50km long tunnel has reduced human-wildlife conflict. [Phares Mutembei]

When Eunice Kubai inherited land from her father, she had great plans to farm it and make it a source of income.

She, however, forgot that she would have to contend with elephant menace.

Kubai has lost count of the number of times she has incurred losses after her crops were trampled on by elephants from the Mt Kenya Forest.

The elephants would bring down the fence around the forest to access the surrounding farms.

“I inherited this land from my father. Many people leased their farms to farmers who grow canola, wheat and other cash crops on large-scale, but I decided to invest some savings on my land,” she says.

Although she has at times made good money from farming, she almost always loses part of the crop to the migrating elephants.

“Elephants roam this area day and night, but mostly at night. We hear them at night feeding in our farms but cannot venture out to drive them away. We just used to go out at day break to assess the damage. Many times I could not raise fees or meet my children’s needs,” she says.

Kubai has never been compensated for her losses. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) says the farms lie on the elephants' migratory path, the route they use as they move from the forest to Samburu and Meru.

But now a tunnel under the road makes it possible for the elephants to cross without destroying farms.

The tunnel has helped prevent accidents, human-wildlife conflict and other inconveniences for man and the animals.

“The tunnel lies between small and big farms where large populations of residents live and work. The animals no longer disturb us, and we do not disturb them,” says Gerald Muriungi, a canola farmer.

Kisima Farm donated part of the land the tunnel is built on.

“We always had problems with elephants from Ngare Ndare forest. One elephant in particular used to migrate through to the mountain and back. He was named Mt Bull,” says Charles Dyer, the manager of the vast Kisima Farm.

Dyer was involved in the design of the corridor and was the one who collected a pickup load of elephant dung and spread it in the underpass that resulted in the first elephant going under.

The first elephant to cross the tunnel was named Tony. And so the peaceful migration began.

People died

The fenced corridor beneath the road near Subuiga in Meru was built by various conservation groups, including the Mount Kenya Forest Trust, Lewa Conservancy and KWS.

Mount Kenya Forest Trust Executive Director Susie Weeks said the Imenti Forest Reserve has a high concentration of people and elephants and has experienced high levels of human-elephant conflict.

“This has led to distressing levels of human and elephant fatalities in recent years. Between March 2014 and March 2016, 11 people died due to human-elephant conflict.  In the same period, 11 elephants were killed in retaliation,” she says.

She said the Imenti reserve was an important area for elephants, which migrate from Mt Kenya forest to Samburu Reserve, Meru National Park and back, depending on the season.

“Mount Kenya Trust’s biggest success in addressing human elephant conflict in Meru has been the establishment of the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor. It re-established the historical migration route for elephant between Mt Kenya and the Ngare Ndare forest and to Samburu,” she said.

More than 1,300 elephant journeys are now recorded up and down the corridor each year.

“To mitigate these conflicts, Rhino Ark built a 53km 10-strand electric fence around the Upper Imenti forest and part of the lower Imenti,” Weeks says.

Together, Rhino Ark and Mt Kenya Trust put in two one-way gates along the new fence which allow elephants into Imenti Forest but not out.

“It works using a sensor that is triggered by the size of incoming elephant,” Weeks says. “If the gate opens our Imenti team receives an sms and can check on whether the gate is being tampered with or the gate has been opened by the presence of elephants.”

KWS Meru Warden Mohamud Madera says a team is working to contain the elephants. Residents who have lost since 2014 and had applied for compensation will be compensated, he says.

“Compensation for crop losses is determined by the director of agriculture. The committee will send recommendations to KWS headquarters and then it will be forwarded to the Ministry of Tourism. We have the resources to protect both the wildlife and people,” Madera says.