Growing up in the arid and remote Voo village in Kitui County, Peter Matulu Maundu encountered tortoises either crossing dusty footpaths or having strayed into people’s farms.
As a teenager herding livestock, he often derived fun from chasing tortoises or sometimes stoning them. Then there were the many stories he heard that characterised the animals as a metaphor of laziness and inertia.
This habit of young school-going boys harassing and killing harmless tortoises for pleasure continues to date in many Kenyan communities, but not anymore in Voo village where Mr Maundu has found a latter-day calling and passion in conserving them.
The 71-year-old, who retired from the provincial administration having served as an assistant chief for three decades, began rearing the tortoises in 2005 and has never looked back.
Tortoise are the longest living animals in the world and it takes up to 50 years for a young tortoise to grow to full size but Mr Maundu has the patience and passion to take care of them daily.
What began as a hobby by rescuing injured and juvenile tortoises has grown into a unique venture which has earned him accolades and money.
He started off with only 20 tortoises of the leopard species whose shell pattern resembles a leopard skin, but the numbers have grown to 360, as of last week.
Rocks within the farm, which form underlying crevices and caves, have also become a suitable home for thousands of other peculiar flat shelled pancake tortoises, which are so rare in the world they are only found in Kenya and Tanzania.
Unknown to the retired chief, before he embarked on the conservation, researchers had been on the trail of the pancake species in various parts of Ukambani and declared Voo village the last remaining bastion for them.
According to Mr Patrick Malonza, a research scientist with the National Museums of Kenya, a study done between 2000 and 2002 had declared Voo village as the only place with the highest concentration of pancake tortoise species in the world.
Mr Malonza explained that the study on the rare tortoise species was conducted jointly by researchers from both National Museums and Kenya Wildlife Service.
“We combed many villages in Kitui and Tharaka Nithi counties in our tortoise study from Ikutha area, going upwards along the belt bordering Tsavo East National Park all the way to Tharaka to the north, and concluded Voo had the highest numbers,” he said.
Luckily for Mr Maundu, when he decided to set up his tortoise farm, the pancake species were already inhabiting in the rocks near his home in plenty, so he combined both the pancake and leopard species.
The leopard tortoise is large and looks round like an inverted pot and attractively marked with spots like a leopard on its shell.
In an interview with Lifestyle at his home, Mr Maundu narrated a journey of 15 years that began with a rigorous vetting process to acquire the necessary licences from the government.
He applied for the breeding licence from KWS in 2003, which was later granted in 2005 after satisfying the wardens that he had the space and management capacity to take care of the animals.
With the imminent extinction of the pancake tortoise in the country, KWS also insisted that the farm must be located in a habitable area for the animals before granting him the licence.
This is because tortoises are naturally reclusive.
The farmer also had to prove that he had enough food, water and security for the reptiles and also got a list of the foods he should have for both mature tortoises and hatchings.
“I was required to put up a perimeter security fence to ward off predators, and prove that the animals would not starve to death. The KWS rangers also instructed me to file quarterly reports on the progress of the farm,” he says.
The quarterly reports detail daily occurrences, including the number of eggs laid or hatched, the health of the tortoises, and any deaths in the sanctuary arising from sickness or attacks,” the farmer says.
In the latest quarterly report that was filed with the Voi Conservancy office in April, Mr Maundu’s farm had 346 leopard tortoise and 2,120 pancake ones.
The numbers have grown partly because he also buys stray tortoises collected by villagers but the reptiles have also multiplied in his watch.
However, the exact numbers of the pancake breed at his farm isn’t known because they are reclusive creatures who rarely venture out in the open during the day.
To keep the count, he puts markings of paint on any pancake he comes across and that forms his record.
“There are thousands we haven’t marked because they mostly stay in caves and are very shy. We know they are here but the records are based only on those we’ve marked,” he says.
The ex-chief says he ventured into tortoise farming out of compassion for the reptiles that mostly live in unprotected areas suffering attacks from humans and sharing depleted vegetation with livestock.
“Tortoise are peaceful, humble and harmless creatures that depend only on their hard shell for protection. Anyone would pity them if you found village boys stoning them as they cross a road in search of food,” says Mr Maundu.
While fellow villagers are busy tilling their farms or looking after their livestock, Mr Maundu devotes some hours every day to ensure his troop of various species are well fed and properly protected from wild predators.
Like any other form of farming, he tends to his animals by feeding them twice a day with grass and other green shrubs, spraying them insecticides to ward off ticks and occasionally deworming them to ensure they stay healthy.
His biggest challenge has been wild predators like snakes and mongoose which eat tortoise eggs in the farm and at times attack the tortoises.
He has devised, with the help of KWS rangers, snares to trap the snakes and mongooses but he plans to reinforce the perimeter wall with an electric fence to keep away the aggressors.
In the arid region, the green shrubs which the animals prefer are hard to get in most times of the year, making the task of feeding the tortoises not an easy one, as he is forced to spend more money in growing kales or buying from the market.
In his two-acre farm, a stone’s throw away from his main house, the slow and reclusive reptiles make unconventional pets, but Mr Maundu’s hobby has turned into an enterprise, earning him enough to cater for his family’s needs in his retirement.
The tortoise farm, tucked away some 80 kilometres east from Kitui town, is an instant attraction for any visitor, seeing hundreds of the wild reptiles majestically roaming the enclosed large, rocky compound.
Over the years, Mr Maundu has harvested and sold some of the animals from his farm to foreign countries under the guidance and permission of KWS.
His venture turned into a lucrative alternative to crop farming, which has become unpromising to Kitui farmers in recent years due to inadequate rainfall.
Mr Maundu says he is better off with his venture described by neighbours as “funny farming” than a farmer keeping a similar number of goats or cattle, even though the bureaucracy of accessing the foreign market is sometimes frustrating.
In December, he sold 100 leopard species to a client in Germany at a price of Sh2,000 each.
Another earlier transaction for the pancake tortoise fetched more, where he sold 80 with each going for up to Sh10,000.
With one farmhand, he says the earnings from his venture are sufficient and rewarding than other conventional farming undertakings, but more importantly satisfying to his passion for animal conservation.
The farmer entered into an agreement with Exotic International, a company that facilitates the export of wild animals, including arranging for the necessary government permits, in 2010 to market his tortoises in foreign markets.
He says the process of selling is rigorous due to strict State regulations but agrees the controls are necessary to stop the animals from becoming extinct.
KWS rangers must visit the farm before giving him the permit to sell to determine if the sale will deplete the numbers.