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When the pastures decrease, the guns increase: Using theatre, cartoons to fight poaching,

By Allan Mungai | November 2nd 2020
Wildlife ranger arrests Kelvin Mutugi after he attempted to shoot an elephant that had strayed into his farm in a play Nubekadineza. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Gun in hand, Nebukadineza, an ill-tempered turban-wearing farmer, rushes out of his house into the night in Laikipia.

Desperate, the farmer bought a gun to protect himself and his crops from marauding elephants. Every morning, he wakes to his maize, cabbage, banana and sugarcane plantations trampled by elephants. Now, he’s at his wits end.

These scenes are from a play staged in Laikipia, in which the farmer, played by Kelvin Mutugi, 39, attacks animals that had strayed into his farm and is apprehended by the authorities.

It is an enactment of the frustrations that farmers who live at the interface with conservation areas go through.

Kanyeki Ngatia, a farmer in Mutara, has lived the life Mutugi fleshes out in the play. He said he has been a victim of elephant destruction and recently encountered one that had strayed from Salama to his neighbour’s maize farm.

“I have filed compensation claims more than five times, and although it has been 10 years I have never been compensated. Should they raid my crops today I will not bother trying to seek compensation,” he said.

Mr Kanyeki’s frustrations mirror that of farmers whose crops have been damaged by elephants.


It is a loss that is not only costing the farmers but also the government. During the 2018 World Elephant Day, the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism said it needed Sh15 billion to compensate victims of human-wildlife conflict.

The wildlife too, are ‘punished’ for straying into farms.

Images of a mob armed with pangas and axes hacking to death an elephant that had strayed into a farm in Meru County are still vivid after the clip went viral.

While Kenya Wildlife Service said this happened on June 21, 2018 after two elephants broke through an electric fence and raided a farm. Human-elephant conflict is common in parts of Laikipia West, Meru, Narok and results in death of residents, injury, loss of livelihood and sometimes killing of wildlife.

However, a ragtag group of actors are playing part in changing the attitude of the community towards conservation in a bid to prevent loss of life and property. In parts of Laikipia and Samburu, the group is using theatre to raise awareness about conservation and shaping social interaction and empathic dialogues.

Mutugi, the leader of the street theatre troupe, wears many hats. He could be Nebukadineza the farmer or a disgruntled former security guard who is looking to join the illegal animal trophy business.

The theatre director and community environmental educator, and his group Community Outreach Arts has staged plays with the message of conservation in Laikipia since 2007.

“If the people get the message from theatre and from people that they can relate with then the message resonates,” he said. Their goal, he said, is to engage local communities and end apathy in conservation.

“We are teaching the people how to protect themselves and their livelihoods and what action is appropriate to take and what is not,” he said.

Street theatre or community drama is gaining popularity among conservationists as a way of educating locals about the value of elephants and wildlife protection.

Theatre is creating platform for dialogue and reflection on conservation. Space for Giants, a Kenyan conservation charity based in Laikipia, uses drama to create awareness about wildlife protection as it builds fences to end human-elephant conflict.

Samuel Githui, the Project Officer overseeing the organisations’ human-elephant conflict mitigation in Laikipia, said the villages where the events take place are selected because of their proximity to the fence or the threatened species.

The performances started in 2014, when incidences of poaching were high, initially to discuss anti-poaching and the value of wildlife.

“But then from 2016 the performance theme changed to focus on the problem of human-elephant conflict and the solution that was the fence,” said Mr Githui.

He explained that interactive dramas is effective in creating awareness about conservation challenges. “It breaks barriers of literacy, and creates opportunities to discuss complex and controversial issues in a relatively safe and open environment,” he said.

Mutugi and the other thespians, have staged plays across the county, from Luoniek, a small trading centre near Mugie conservancy to Wangwachi near Ol Ari Nyiro conservancy, Mutara and Sipili.

Two faces

David Kimathi, 29, a farmer in Sipili, sat through one of the performances staged in the town during a meeting with the area chief. 

Although he said he last saw a performance in 2017, he can recount the themes lucidly.

“After they performed people talked about it for a long time. I think it helps because the people who were cutting the fences where the animals live stopped,” Mr Kimathi said.

Laikipia County, shadowed by Mt Kenya and the Aberdare Ranges, is like a coin with two faces. One part of Laikipia is a lush green, where farmers such as Kanyeki cultivate horticultural crops for export.

However, as you move deeper into the county and cross into Samburu, another face becomes apparent. A dry and harsh one.

For the pastoralists, their worry is not about marauding elephants but pasture for livestock.

In the region, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which supports 39 community conservancies across northern Kenya, has produced a series of cartoons they use to explore issues of poaching, conservation, human-wildlife conflict and raise discussion about unsustainable grazing management which has degraded grasslands and contributed to land invasion and insecurity.

The five-minute animated videos are dubbed in Kiswahili and Samburu and are screened to the community in public barazas.

The first episode opens with vultures circling the carcass of a cow that is lying on cracked land. Then to an astonished crowd, the narrators, an elephant known as Mr Tembo and an aging man, tell the story of a land that was lush green.

“This land used to be green. There were rivers that flowed into Ewaso Nyiro and Archer’s Post was just a small town. There were herds of elephants everywhere and the cows had pasture,” Mr Tembo says.

The increasing population and livestock has sparked competition for pasture.

As the pasture decreases, the guns increase. Over the ratatat of gunshots, the narrator laments that the guns have brought carnage on the land. The communities are fighting over pasture and the wildlife are also caught in the melee.

“Guns have also made it easy to kill wild animals and that is why we have fewer elephants now. What is sad is the demand for tusks by people who do not care about what happens in our land,” Tembo says

NRT Director of Natural Resource Management Kieran Avery said they settled on the cartoons to deliver consistent and clear messages.

“Different people, when tasked to deliver the same message, nearly always end up delivering the message differently and this can bring issues when the messaging detail is so critical,” he said.

“Cartoons are also neutral; the characters are made up and therefore people do not judge them and are not distracted by them. Cartoons are entertaining - the message can be delivered in a light manner,” he added.

- This story was produced with funding from the Earth Journalism Project by Internews

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