Elephant in the room: Will you share the space?

Elephants in Amboseli National Park. [File, Standard]

Early this year, an elephant in Amboseli embarked on a desperate journey. Driven by unrelenting thirst in the worst drought the country has faced in 40 years, the elephant strayed into community areas in search of water. 

It found a borehole, but like the rest of the region, the well had run dry. The elephant had however tried so hard to try and reach water that its massive frame got stuck in the narrow opening. 

Word of the trapped elephant reached rangers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and they were the first respondents. They called upon Kenya Wildlife Service and other rescue teams that work in the area to try and rescue the elephant. 

“It is unfortunate that the depth at which it had fallen and the response time was not sufficient to help rescue the elephant, so it died,” says Maurice Nyaligu, Head of Programmes for IFAW in Eastern Africa. 

With the barren landscape threatening all life, the elephant had been one of many that had strayed into community areas, leading to rising cases of human-wildlife conflict. Nyaligu says that in some cases, children found themselves unable to go to school because of the concentration of elephants in the paths they usually used to get there. 

It’s not just elephants, it’s all forms of wildlife that suffered alongside humans and with attacks from both sides in the midst of the drought’s unforgiving grip, everyone was suffering.  

This heart-wrenching situation serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for a solution, and a major one is to give elephants and other wildlife, space to move about. We need to create corridors for them. 

“Sometimes people think it’s like a corridor in an apartment building or something. Like it’s this narrow highway for the elephant to use, but that’s not what it is,” explains Azzedine Downs, President and CEO of IFAW. 

Azzedine Downs, president and CEO of IFAW in Amboseli. [File, Standard]

“It really means that we have left space for the elephants and other wildlife to move across the landscape.” 

We are in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, at the tail end of the famed wildebeest migration, where he is explaining this. The conversation is happening on a hotel’s verandah amidst heavy, pouring rain, overlooking the Mara River.   Every once in a while, one of the hippos in the river grunts and a small commotion ensues, before calm is restored. Crocodiles lie in wait for the final group of wildebeests to make the treacherous journey across the river.

This annual wonder of the natural world may one day cease to exist. The wildebeests and other herbivores migrate to find food but with rainfall becoming more erratic due to climate change, and with human settlements encroaching more of their land, they may be left with nowhere to go.

“One of the leaders told me that when he was a boy, there were one million acres more available to wildlife. So slowly the encroachment is happening,” says Downs.

“If the animals are not able to move, if the elephants are not able to move across the complete landscape, when there’s a drought, you’re going to see death, you’re going to see civil unrest. The issue of human-wildlife conflict always increases when there isn’t enough space, so that’s why the corridor is so critical.”

Whenever wildlife conservation is discussed, the elephant in the room is always the fact that humans also need room to live. So IFAW approaches the issue differently. The non-profit helps animals and people thrive together.

They have an initiative called Room to Roam, which aims to aims to secure a network of 12 connected, critical landscapes, each of which is home to at least 10,000 elephants, which will enable wildlife and people to flourish together.

Why the focus on elephants? They are a keystone species, according to Professor Judy Wakhungu, former CS Environment and IFAW board member.

“We refer to them as ecosystem engineers (as they modify the landscapes they live in), so they add value wherever they go and that also allows other animals to survive. They need a lot of space, so the biggest danger posed to these animals is space - habitat loss and biodiversity loss. It is such a huge problem for these species,” she says.

Right in front of us, the savannah stretches out endlessly beneath the vast blue sky in Amboseli, where we now are. Majestic elephants roam freely, and on the opposite side, a herd of cattle graze peacefully, seemingly undisturbed by the proximity of their wild neighbours. Women cross the landscape with a tranquil purpose, carrying various loads complete the scene. It’s a small snapshot that it is indeed possible to share space.

“They’re all living together in harmony,” she says. “IFAW works with people and the communities. We feel that they must thrive together for us to survive as a species. We also believe in one health so that if animals are healthy, if the environment is healthy, then we as human beings will also be healthy.”

While in Kenya we have several protected areas for wildlife, such as Amboseli National Park, animals don’t just stay within the parks, they need to move from one protected area to another, such as between Amboseli and Tsavo. When land isn’t specifically set aside for animals to do this, it ends up getting encroached upon by human civilisation.

“If you look at a place like Kitengela, it used to be a dispersal area for Nairobi National Park. But now, what do you see? You see houses, you see settlements. You see fences. So wildebeests and other animals cannot move out. We don’t want a similar situation to happen in Amboseli,” says James Isiche, Africa director for IFAW.

But the land in between these places which would be the corridors that elephants use is owned by people.

“That land belongs to the community. They want to grow crops just like I do, they want to keep livestock, they want a permanent settlement where they can enjoy the trappings of life if they wish,” says James Isiche, Africa director for IFAW.

Elephants and cattle grazing side by side in Amboseli National Park. [File, Standard]

So letting elephants and other animals roam can be a hard sell – unless the people have a better alternative.

Mt Kilimanjaro, in all its grandeur, is in full view. We are now in Kitenden Conservancy, which is central to both Kilimanjaro National Park and Amboseli National Park. It is very critical for the migration of elephants and other wildlife from Amboseli National Park into the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro and back. 

“It is actually right at the center of a critical corridor called Kitenden which has been identified by both the government of Kenya and the government of Tanzania as critical for the movement of wildlife between Kitenden, Enduimet Wildlife Management Area, Kilimanjaro and the greater Amboseli area,” says Maurice Nyaligu, Head of Programs for IFAW in Eastern Africa.

This land, around 26,000 acres, is owned by 2,600 people, who all came together and agreed to lease the land to IFAW, which, after negotiations with them, they have done for the last 10 years. It has cost IFAW close to 700 million shillings.

“We are here to witness the official handover of the Kitenden Community Conservancy back to the landowners organised around the Kitenden Community Trust. From there, they will now be getting into separate agreements with the new investor,” says Nyaligu.

It is not just about leasing the land, but improving the lives of the community as a whole. It has also been about training and employing rangers from the community, giving vocational training to the women so that they can eke a living, giving scholarships and so on.

Working with the community, and having them oversee the land themselves instead of running conservation operations that alienate them has been a major game-changer.

“They themselves enforce the wildlife monitoring, and because they are also landowners here, they’re able to better manage conflict cases. Their own sons, and daughters are the ones who are patrolling and are able to respond and inform their own family members of areas where there are elephant movements in particular and where also other carnivores are to be found, so it’s a win-win model,” says Nyaligu.

At the handover ceremony, the community is ecstatic. They have come from far and wide to express their gratitude and appreciation at the ceremony. Daniel Leturesh, who was born in Kitenden and is chairman of Olgulului Ololarashi Group Ranch, which surrounds Amboseli National Park states how crucial conservation has been in the face of climate change.

“It’s not like it used to be. When we were young, we had rain throughout, there was no drought and famine. But last year we lost 80 per cent of our livestock, and in this area, livestock is the people’s livelihood,” says Daniel Leturesh.

He has worked tirelessly to convince the community of the importance of conservation and says that in the recent drought, they lost wildlife in huge numbers, especially zebras and wildebeests and over 400 elephant calves.

“We once thought it was a myth but now we can’t even predict the seasons like we used to, so we have realized that climate change is real…. We depend on livestock, and if the land disappears, we also lose. So we want to be supported. That is why we agreed to form a conservancy. I used language to show that the conservancy will not be for wildlife alone. It will also be our pasture. That is what made them agree. Now you cannot touch the conservancy. It is intact. So now they (the community) have seen the benefit,” he says.

Azzedine Downs sums it up best:

“That’s why we focus on animals and people thriving, together, in the place that we call home. I think the old idea of conservation was the animals are inside the protected area, the rangers are at the border, and the people are outside and they don’t interact. And that’s just not the way life is.”