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Spectacle of the wild as Elephants break into Taita Taveta homes to lick sugar

COAST
By Renson Mnyamwezi | September 5th 2021
Tim, who died in 2019 was one of Amboseli's most famous elephants. [Amboseli Trust for elephants]

From the much romanticised 1898 Tsavo-man-eaters to the current sugar eating elephants, Taita Taveta County residents have seen it all in human-wildlife conflicts.

Other than the frequent clashes that have resulted in many deaths, injuries and destruction on both sides, the residents have also documented the uncanny eating habits among elephants.

In Taita Taveta, locals interviewed say herds of marauding elephants, seemingly with a sweet tooth, are breaking into shops to gobble up bags of sugar.

Mercy Kighombe of Mgeno Village in the outskirts of Mwatate town said they were a worried and hopeless lot as hungry elephants break into houses and food stores to look for sugar.

"They rip off rooftops from houses and stores in a desperate search for food. We are now surprised that they are after sugar. Initially it was just pasture and water, then came pawpaws," she said.

She added: “The elephants that raided Mgeno shopping centre this week were after sugar and maize. They moved from one shop to the other.” 

Kighombe said the locals have never before witnessed such behavior and feeding habits among elephants. 

Another farmer in Landi area, Linet Mavu, noted that the troublesome jumbos had also destroyed water tanks and houses in search of water and pasture. 

With their keen noses, the jumbos have become more tactful in sniffing out food several kilometers away, including food in homesteads. 

“We have constantly been complaining to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) personnel in vain. We do not know who to turn to now,” said Linet, who is a former county executive committee member.

Tsavo West National Park Senior Warden David Oyugi said he was not aware of the invasion.

“It is true that the affected areas are under my jurisdiction but the matter has not reached my office. However, if the invasion is confirmed then it will adequately be handled by the community wildlife service offices in Voi town,” he said.

Some of the areas hardest hit by frequent wildlife invasion include Mwatate, Mbololo, Ngolia, Kasigau and Sagala which have suffered untold damage of property, deaths and injuries.

Studies conducted by Melissa Schmitt, a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, showed that elephants have more scent receptors than any other mammal. 

It might seem obvious that an animal can sniff out its food. Dr Schmitt acknowledged that humans know when neighbours are grilling steak.

The latest bit of research adds to the evidence by showing how elephants use their great sense of smell in choosing food. Elephants often must find vegetation and water at a distance, and they also distinguish between fairly similar plants once they reach a clump of likely vegetation.

So she tested them at close range, using two buckets with two different hidden foods.

They easily picked out the bucket with leaves from plants they enjoyed, say wild pear, and avoided ones they didn’t like, wild olive, for instance.

Another farmer Anderson Mwaloma, from Mbololo location said students are now reporting to school late and have to go back home as early as 2pm for fear of being attacked by wild animals.

Mwaloma said elephants overrun people’s settlements from as early as 4pm in the evening.

“The KWS personnel are not bothered and local leaders are not even responsive ,” he claimed.

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