Land use change in the Transmara, from “Wildlife and People: Conflict and Conservation in Masai Mara, Kenya” by Noah Sitati

Here’s a quickie to follow up on my post about elephant conflicts in Masai land.  Quite a few people have written me back to express the thought that the elephants were there first, and that people are probably taking away their habitat.  Without a doubt this is true.  In the past twenty five years the amount of farmland in the Transmara has increased by 1000%, and forested land has likewise decreased.  An elephant population that used to be contiguous with the Masai Mara National Reserve now is increasingly only sustainable within the reserve itself.

“Your elephants”

Before coming to Kenya I’d heard that people in villages with elephant problems often refer to the elephants as “your elephants” when they talk with the Kenya Wildlife Service.  I definitely came across this attitude.  In fact, the prevailing attitude was that the Masai Mara Reserve was created to protect wildlife, and the rest of this land should be for the Masai – not wildlife.  The Masai Mara is actually a fairly small reserve, but it is part of the huge Serengeti – Masai Mara ecosystem and there are elephants that move back and forth between the two.  But what is the answer?

elephant skull from poaching

In Kenya, elephant poaching is still a large problem.  Elephants that live outside of parks are at risk from both poaching and from being shot by farmers who want to take things into their own hands after losing all their food.  When I was in Transmara we were looking for elephants in the areas around peoples farms.  There is still a good amount of forest in Transmara, but the elephants are increasingly wary of people. In one patch of forest near a dwelling and school we came across a recently poached carcass that was maybe two weeks old.  The elephant’s tusks had been removed, making it clear that it had been poached and not just shot when it was raiding a farm. So there are multiple problems here.

Elephants are not threatened throughout their range.  In fact, in South Africa conservation has been so successful that there has been serious talk about the need to cull elephant herds again at some point in the future (here’s a NG article about elephant management).  Culling is unlikely to ever be a need here in Kenya, but the conflicts between elephants and people are likely to continue unabated unless some solutions can be found to this problem. I think that it is easy for us as Americans to sit back and talk about the idea that people are the problem here.  When someone’s grain storage is raided, they can lose six months worth of food that they were depending on to keep themselves and their kids fed.  Most of the people here have no jobs to rely on beyond their farming, and there are virtually no jobs even if they did want to do something other than subsistence farming.

Dr. Noah Sitati of WWF has been looking at this problem for years now.  He believes that it is possible to equip farms that are in known elephant paths with electric fence (here is the report on wildlife / people conflict in the Masai Mara), but he thinks the long term solution is to pass zoning laws that would limit farming, and create economic development so that so many people were not dependent on farming.  Noah also writes that the Kenya Wildlife Service could do more to help the people who have ongoing conflicts with elephants.  Most of the people I talked with said that KWS does nothing when they receive a report about an elephant conflict.  If someone is killed they offer apologies only.  The man that was injured was given some money by KWS, but it was not enough to cover hospital costs.  In the US our government does not compensate people for either personal or property damage caused by wildlife.  Here is seems to be an expectation, because the wildlife is considered to be around for tourists only.  The locals don’t see any benefit.  In reality, I would say that many people benefit to some degree, because tourism is the largest source of income for Kenya, but subsistence farmers cannot see this in their own lives.

Here is a short interview with a woman whose house was broken into by an elephant.  She and her husband are both educated.  They are both nurses.  There house is quite nice for the area.  The elephant pushed a wall completely into the house, but they were both gone when it happened.  The elephant ate most of their grain, which they generally distribute to family members who have no jobs.

Are the elephants in these areas doomed?  Noah thinks it could go either way for the population in Transmara and those other areas close to the Masai Mara.  For the elephants around Narok, those populations probably have no future.

Parting shots: