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Youths rescue residents as jumbos terrorise village in Makueni

Tuesday January 21 2020

Soto village vigilante group

Members of a vigilante group formed by farmers in Soto village that neighbours Chyullu Hills National Park. The group helps to protect invasion of their farms by elephants. PHOTO | PIUS MAUNDU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PIUS MAUNDU
By PIUS MAUNDU
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Incensed by frequent elephant attacks, a section of farmers bordering Chyullu Hills National Park in Makueni County have formed a vigilante group to protect their crops.

This comes at a time when the farmers are expecting a bumper harvest following heavy rains in the region.

The vigilante comprises 30 youths drawn from Kosovo, Soto and Likoni villages.

At dusk, they converge at Soto market — the heart of the human-wildlife conflict — and keep vigil, waiting to respond to distress calls.

The jumbos use a hole in an electric fence in Wakiamba village to enter the farms.

ALERT VIGILANTES

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As they spread out to the neighbourhood, sparking terror, sending dogs barking uncontrollably, and destroying crops along the way, residents alert the vigilantes.

"The reports we receive help us to map the specific location of the animals before we round them up," said Mr Musa Ngesa, the group’s chairman.

“Instead of waiting for KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) to tell us to fill compensation forms that end up gathering dust in offices, we decided to be proactive,” said Mr Ngesa.

They chase away the animals by hurling stones at them.

REINFORCEMENTS

When the elephants overwhelm them, as is often the case, the youths seek reinforcements from local scouts hired and armed with thunder-flash explosives by Big Five, a conservancy that runs a resort at Chyullu Hills National Park.

But when things get thick, they alert KWS rangers.

"The vigilante is an improvement of an earlier initiative that failed to deliver since it had enlisted a handful of volunteers to patrol the farms. Teamwork and collaboration with other stakeholders has enabled the current volunteers to be effective in addressing the elephant menace. The explosives we give them scare even the most stubborn elephants," said Mr Peter Waita, the head of the scouts.

To sustain the vigilantes, each household pays Sh100 per month. The money also goes towards buying batteries for torches.

Formed last month, the group has afforded villagers some sleep.

But farmers are cautiously optimistic.

HARVESTED MAIZE

Most of them harvested maize before it dried properly, exposing themselves to cancer-causing aflatoxin.

"Instead of risking losing all the maize to elephants, which strike around this time, we decided to harvest and dry the crop at home," said Mr Joshua Mwanzia.

"This season we harvested beans, cowpeas and green grams, something that seldom happens," said Mary Mutisya, an elder from Soto village.

The group was formed on the backdrop of a strained relationship between villagers and KWS officers over poaching.

More than 10 people have been trampled on by elephants.

Other villagers have been arrested while fetching firewood or harvesting grass in the park.

PROTESTS

Last year, dozens of youths stormed a KWS outpost, protesting against alleged high-handedness and lethargy by wildlife officials every time the animals strike.

But, according to Ms Constance Mwasho, the warden in charge of Makueni lacks enough personnel to patrol the entire region.

According to official data seen by the Nation, there are more than 800 cases of crop destruction lined up for compensation.

Applications for compensation date back to 2014 when the government created Wildlife Community Conservation and Compensation Committee to speed up the exercise.

The destruction of crops has exposed the region to famine.

When the National Drought Management Authority listed Makueni among counties on the verge of famine last year, County Commissioner Mohammed Maalim blamed elephants for low food production in the semi-arid region.