Hope for locals as electric fence keeps wildlife from their homes

Mary Wanjiru inspects a scar on her husband's leg. Charles Gichuhi, left, was attacked by an elephant at their home in Sagana village, Nyeri County, on December 14, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Charles Gichuhi, 50, emerges from his wooden semi-permanent house in Sagana Village, Nyeri county, a few minutes past noon, clutching his crutches, with his wife Mary Wanjiru right behind him, ready to assist just in case he misses a step.

Gichuhi will never forget July 12, last year, when he had an encounter with a lone elephant at the farm; it was the day his life was turned upside down.

"I woke up early that morning and walked into the farm to instal some sprinklers for irrigation when I ran into an elephant; I tried to flee but it was too late," Gichuhi recalls.

The elephant charged at him, raged, and knocked him down, goring him on the left leg with his massive tusks and throwing him into the air, shattering his leg.

The trumpeting elephant drew neighbours who came to his aid.

The elephant bolted into the thicket, leaving him to die.

Gichuhi's wife, who was selling milk by the roadside at the time, heard the commotion and ran to the farm to find out what was going on.

"I found him lying on the ground, blood oozing from everywhere on his body, I lost consciousness out of shock, only to wake up when he had already been taken to the hospital by the neighbours," Wanjiru says.

Gichuhi was hospitalised for two months after suffering dislocated hip joints, broken ribs, and a broken leg.

The family was forced to sell their only cow and spend all of their savings to pay the Sh500,000 hospital bill. The father of four is now at home, relying on food donations because, unlike before, he is unable to fend for himself.

"I didn't know that my life would turn miserable. I have four children; one in college, another one just finished Standard Eight and is set to join Form One, and the other two are still in primary school. I'm not sure how I'm going to educate them, let alone feed them," Gichuhi said.

Wanjiru's life has drastically changed; she is now the only person on whom the family relies for food, school fees, and handle farm responsibilities, in addition to housework.

Gichuhi attempted to seek compensation from the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) but received no positive response.

"I have reported the incident to KWS, and they gave me a compensation form to fill out, and I am still waiting to get a response from them. It appears that it will take years," he added.

Gichuhi's story exemplifies the daily struggle of hundreds of Kenyans who live near the Mt Kenya region's forests.

Human-wildlife conflict is a major problem in the Mount Kenya region, where large human populations live along the forest's edges.

"Mt Kenya has been a hotspot of this human-wildlife conflict, particularly in Imenti forest, where 11 members of the community were killed by elephants and the community killed 11 elephants in retaliation over a two-year period."

"That is just a classic example of how the interaction can be so detrimental," said Adams Mwangi, Rhino Ark Fence and Community Manager for the Mount Kenya and Aberdare eco-systems.

He said the majority of these cases have been recorded in areas where elephants used to migrate.

"The areas that we are witnessing most of these incidences are areas which were once migratory routes for elephants either migrating from Mt Kenya to Aberdare, from Mt Kenya to the northern areas of Isiolo and vice versa. We've identified these areas as hotspots," Mwangi added.

To address the situation, the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service and other stakeholders, is currently fencing off the 450km Mt Kenya ecosystem at a cost of about Sh1.5 billion to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.

The organisation hopes to replicate the conservation gains made in the 400-square-kilometer Aberdare Forest, which was fenced for Sh800 million.

"The construction of this Solar powered fence began in 2012 in Kirinyaga county, then moved to Embu, Tharaka Nithi, and Meru, and we are now in Nyeri County," Mwangi said.

They have covered 240km of the total 450km, and the benefits are already being felt in the areas covered.

"For decades, this area was uninhabitable; many people were killed and maimed by marauding elephants and hyenas. Livestock has not been spared either.

"The fence is a boon to us; as you can see, we have crops at our farms and are anticipating a bumper harvest," said Mbiriri chief Paul Muthee.

According to Bakari Chongwa, senior assistant Director of Mountain Conservation Areas, communities living adjacent to the forest will benefit the most from the fence project.

The value of land has increased in recent years, despite frequent attacks and destruction of property and crops by marauding elephants and other wild animals.

"For example in areas of Tetu and Othaya which are adjacent to the forest, some of the farms before fencing were being sold at Sh50,000 per acre and today you cannot get that piece of acre with less than Sh2 million because it has become valuable.

"Farmers have been protected from marauding elephants, allowing their crops to mature and reach the intended market," Chongwa said.

He said despite the fact that a fence has been erected all around the forest, locals, particularly in Aberdare, are still reaping the benefits stipulated in the Forest Act of 2005.

These include access to the forest for firewood harvesting, grazing, and water resources.

"We and Rhino commissioned a survey to determine the economic valuation of the Aberdare resource given the amount of cost that has been sunken into fencing and also in managing it.

"In 2010, the University of Nairobi conducted a survey that determined that the Abadere was worth Sh56 billion per year at the time; today, this value has risen to more than Sh96 billion annually," Chongwa said.

He said the forest has benefited not only the residents surrounding the ecosystem, but that people in Nairobi and coastal regions benefit directly from the ecosystem through water and other services.

Rhino Ark mobilises resources and raises funds for conservation through its annual Rhino charge event.

"The annual event brings together supporters and rhino chargers who are committed to the course of conservation. We had a huge challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 which disrupted everything, we were forced to postpone the event.

"This year's event raised Sh156 million, while last year's event raised Sh140 million," Mwangi said.

Aside from reducing human-wildlife conflict, the fence's construction has deterred poachers, illegal loggers, charcoal burners, and forest encroachment.

Rhino Ark, in collaboration with Kenya Forest Service, has established a mega tree nursery in Nanyuki Forest Station, Mt Kenya, as part of long-term measures to address the devastating effects of climate change and desertification.

The project complements the ongoing fencing project to restore degraded forest areas.

The seedlings from the nurseries are provided freely to community groups and government agencies to boost the government's plan to plant 15 billion trees by 2030.