It is a sweltering afternoon in Maungu and herds of livestock are still lazing about in their make-shift kraals. Ordinarily, the animals would be out grazing in the fields.
Drought in Maungu and and other areas of Taita Taveta County where livestock-rearing is the main economic activity in the vast lowlands has made residents to think out of the box.
The region’s predominantly pastoralist communities are quickly turning to grazing livestock at night, thanks to the unrelenting drought that has decimated pasture and grasslands.
Pasture depletion in the non-protected areas and the traditional grazing fields has forced herders to resort to night grazing in conservation areas, specifically the sprawling Tsavo National Park.
At Maungu, residents say the animals have “night-outs” foraging in the conservancy where pasture is relatively good. The animals are driven back to the bomas in the early hours of the morning.
In cowsheds spread along the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway, you will find hundreds of livestock resting during the day as the herders bid their time until nightfall when they resume their nocturnal grazing expeditions in the adjacent conservancy.
This is contrary to park rules, which prohibit night game driving in the conservancies. Indeed, visitors, with the exception of those intending to spend in tourist facilities in the parks, are required to vacate the park by 6pm.
This move by the herders is replete with danger given the park teems with dangerous animals like lions, elephants and snakes.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that some use charms to shield themselves against possible wildlife attacks, while owing to their long stay in the jungle, others are said to acquire natural wildlife-like scents that influence animal behaviour towards them.
Some herders, we gather, graze in the park with the connivance of officials, an allegation the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has denied.
But a herder who sought anonymity said that some livestock owners pay protection fee to unscrupulous KWS personnel to be allowed to graze in the park.
The illegal grazing has intensified as the drought situation gets worse, threatening livelihoods in the county.
This comes at a time the county is still grappling with persistent human-wildlife conflict, which has in recent months reached alarming levels.
Residents have complained that huge herds of marauding elephants are fleeing their habitats in the park and invading community settlement areas due to the presence of illegal night grazers and poachers.
The influx of livestock into wildlife habitat has worsened wildlife invasions on settlements with elephants, lions and buffalos injuring, maiming, killing people and destroying property.
The wild animals, especially jumbos, conservationists say, are killing people, besides destroying property and disrupting learning in several institutions in parts of Voi, Mwatate, Taveta and Taita sub-counties.
Apart from the illegal herders, other factors that have escalated the conflict include poachers, charcoal burners, honey gatherers and bush fires in Tsavo.
Bongosa Mcharo, the chairman of the Taita Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Association and the outgoing County Assembly Lands Committee chairperson Chanzu Khamadi, claim that livestock traders from outside the region have taken over Tsavo.
“Well-connected livestock traders and MPs from outside are among influential individuals grazing in Tsavo because the county is a livestock disease-free zone. They have been fattening their livestock in the county for export but at the expense of conservation efforts,” said Khamadi, outgoing Mata MCA.
“Continued interference with wildlife habitats has forced wild animals to flee to peoples’ settlement areas to seek refuge,” he said, adding that the heavy presence of livestock in the park has interfered with wildlife migratory routes.
“In the process of moving out of Tsavo for safety, the wild animals invade settlement areas and destroy food crops,” he said.
Mr Mcharo, who is also the chairman of the Taita Taveta Ranchers Association, warned that unless checked, the illegal herding of livestock in the conservancy is an ecological disaster waiting to happen..
He said grazing in the park had become a major security concern.
“The park has become inhabitable for wildlife, hence the incursions into human settlements,” said Mcharo.
KWS head of communications, Teresia Ingiria, could not confirm or deny livestock invasion of the park. “I have not heard that but let me talk to the warden in-charge and come back to you,” she said in her terse response to our inquiries.