In the picturesque village of Riru, nestled in the Kieni West region, the sun reaches its zenith as 58-year-old farmer Chrispus Karue continues his daily toil in the lush maize fields.
The embrace of the formidable Aberdare Forest Mountains, their cold breath touching the landscape, serves as a constant reminder of nature's profound power.
Amidst the harmonious symphony of thriving crops and domesticated animals on his farm, a remarkable coexistence prevails.
Yet, what truly distinguishes this rural tableau unfolds just beyond Karue's doorstep: majestic elephants, formidable buffalos, elegant zebras, and graceful waterbucks move freely, sharing silent kinship with the local community.
“We coexist with them harmoniously, I consider myself fortunate to witness these wild creatures from my farm, whereas for others, glimpsing an elephant in a game park comes at a cost”, Karue says.
This harmonious coexistence, a testament to human ingenuity and nature's resilience, is made possible by an electric, solar-powered fence erected in 1989 by the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, a non-governmental organisation partnering with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
Stretching across Aberdare Forest and the community, this fence has transformed the lives of Riru's residents and nearby villages.
Initially, the organisations intended to erect a 38km electric fence around the Park Salient, extending into Mweiga farms with the mission to conserve Aberdare's wildlife and address human-wildlife conflicts.
However, over two decades, this humble fence evolved into the longest conservation barrier, spanning nearly 400km. Its guardian status extended to safeguard over 2,000 sq. km of vital forests in the Aberdare Conservation Area.
The seven-foot-tall electrified fence, completed in 2009 at a cost of Sh800 million, effectively deterred wildlife intrusions, fostering peaceful coexistence.
"Wild animals were frequent visitors to our villages. I remember a day when leopards strayed from the forest and killed over 25 sheep belonging to our neighbour," says Karue.
"They posed grave threats to our lives and livelihoods. Going to school was perilous, requiring us to wait until 10 m, accompanied by our parents for our children's safety.”
“Since the electric fence's inception, life has dramatically improved. Pupils now travel to school as early as 5am, and the once-dreaded encounters with wild animals are distant memories," says Karue.
However, life in Mastoo village of Kieni East, nestled at the border of Thego, part of Mt. Kenya forest unfolds a different narrative.
Helena Wambui and her husband, James Kimani, recount a nightmarish ordeal of elephant terror.
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In the dead of night, the colossal creature invaded their home, mercilessly tearing it asunder – the iron sheet and wooden house, devouring the hard-earned farm produce they had harvested.
Fortunately, the couple was away when the catastrophe unfolded, and their caretaker narrowly escaped the impending disaster.
"The elephants have been frequently invading our farm, and to prevent further destruction, we decided to harvest and store our maize, beans, and potatoes inside the house.
But tragically, the elephants followed, causing even more devastation. I had potatoes, maize, and beans, but all has been eaten by elephants. Presently, I have no roof over my head, no food on my plate, and I rely on the kindness of neighbours," Wambui says.
James Wanjohi, Wambui's husband, implores the Kenya Wildlife Service to expedite the assessment process and provide compensation for their losses.
"I cannot endure this dilapidated existence any longer. While elephants have previously ventured into our farms, this is the first time they have destroyed our homes. I kindly beseech KWS to assist me in rebuilding my house," he says.
Their property rests roughly a kilometre from the forest, sharing a common border. Unfortunately, elephants often breach the fence.
Wanjohi, a resident since 1972, has witnessed the ebb and flow of elephants from the forest, posing a grave threat during harvest season.
Wanjohi shares his optimism, saying, "We are looking forward to the day when an electric fence will be constructed here so that we can coexist with this wildlife like people in Aberdare."
The Mt. Kenya Forest fencing project is an ongoing endeavour and has yet to reach Thego Forest.
According to Adams Mwangi, Rhino Ark Fence and Community Manager, the current construction phase has successfully covered 290 out of the total 450 kilometres required to encircle the entire forest area, encompassing Kirinyaga, Embu, Tharaka Nithi, Meru, and Nyeri.
Mwangi explains the significant expenses associated with this project, where each kilometre of the comprehensive fence comes at a cost of Sh3 million.
To fund this project, they heavily rely on donors, with a substantial contribution coming from their annual event, the Rhino Charge.
"In the ongoing Mt. Kenya project, some sections have been successfully completed, while others are still a work in progress. Areas like the Laikipia plateau and conservancies, including Sangare, pose unique challenges due to inadequate fencing, sometimes leading to conflicts with the local community.”
“After this phase, our goal is to reconnect Aberdare and Mt. Kenya, facilitating wildlife movement between the regions and potentially integrating conservancies like Sangare into the wildlife corridor," he adds.
The fencing project began in Kirinyaga County, then to Embu County, followed by Tharaka Nithi, and concluded in Meru.
"Before Rhino Ark's involvement, there was serious conflict between the community and elephants, leading to casualties on both sides,” Mwangi says.
Paul Omondi, Deputy Park Warden for Mt. Kenya National Park, says fencing measures help safeguard human lives, conserve wildlife, and enhance community livelihoods.
"During our patrols, we identify hotspots and expedite issue resolution. Moreover, our community education initiatives focus on educating communities about responding to wild animal intrusions, preventing injuries, and ensuring swift actions."