While experts say communities must learn to co-exist with wildlife, the animals are learning new tricks every day
On calm and quiet days, the apparent serenity is palpable despite the roughness of the landscape; some locals even call the place a rugged beauty.
On wild days, when the night falls, the cover of the darkness brings with it terror, that the inhabitants of the little settlement now must learn to live with.
This is Zongwani Village, a little hamlet set within the backwoods that define Sagalla Hill, which is part of the Taita Hills, an imposing range of inselbergs in Voi, Taita-Taveta County.
As if that is not enough, the village sits on the fringes of the vast Tsavo West National Park, and smack on the migratory path of elephants that traverse the park, and its more imposing namesake, Tsavo East National Park, which lies just across; on the other side of both Mombasa Road and the Standard Gauge Railway.
At night, an equally big danger prowls as lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs descend on the settlement, targeting the villagers and their livestock.
Mr Anderson Keke, Zongwani village elder, says he loses more than five acres of crops, every season, to the elephants, elands, and antelope herds. Many in the village, which has about 300 residents, have undergone the ritual.
The initially amiable giraffes are now also joining the ravaging lot; pillaging whenever opportunity comes.
“In December last year, I had 25 fully grown goats and three kids; today, all I have are six kids; their nannies and the rest of the flock all mauled by leopards, lions and cheetahs.
“The wild dogs and hyenas are worse. They take bites off the livestock when the goat is still alive and on its feet,” says another villager, Jackan Kalama, who heads one of the village’s Nyumba Kumi initiatives.
He says the situation gets out of hand in the dry season, when the herbivores run out of food in the wilderness, and have to move closer to human settlements for water and pasture, and when this happens, their predators also follow suit.
“We then face a double threat; from the herbivores that destroy our crops and food granaries, and the carnivores, which raid our livestock pens and houses,” says Mr Keke.
The quietude of that wilderness has for ages veiled that underlying conflict pitting the wildlife and the local communities who, with the incessant attacks, are now resorting to colluding with poachers and killing the wildlife, whenever a chance emerges.
Elsewhere in Kajiado County, residents of the semi-arid Intilal and Nolasit villages in Rombo, a small township in Loitokitok, have for many years now dealt with a similar problem.
The villagers say a combination of factors, compounded by some of their colleagues’ seeming insatiability for personal benefits, have contributed a lot to the danger posed by the wildlife freely roaming the neighbourhood which, inadvertently, overlaps into the nearly 10,000-square kilometre Tsavo West.
The now dry River Mokoin, which separates the two villages, initially provided water for farmers, herders and also for the wildlife.
However, with time, communities upstream directed water into their own homesteads and now those downstream bear the brunt of this action.
“We, the downstream communities, in effect lacked water to farm, and our livestock had none to drink, which caused undue tension between the farmers and the herders. Soon we became targets of wildlife which prowled in search of water in our homes and, while at it, maul us and our livestock, and also ravage the little crops we cultivated,” says Richard ole Lemashon, a trader who has since resorted to move from the countryside and settle in Rombo township.
According to the villagers, so bold have the mongooses, monkeys, baboons, and civets become, that they now raid homesteads; sometimes in broad daylight, and take off with chicken, small livestock and human food, in the main house.
These circumstances are not exclusive to the two communities. They are commonplace in the counties that border national parks and game reserves, in not just the region, but across the borders too; wildlife and people living near their habitats have always been conflicting bedfellows.
The wildlife are now adapting to the traditional mechanisms that the villagers use to scare them away, according to Laizer Oshumu, the Anti-Poaching Commander at Enduimet Community Wildlife Management Area in Longido District, Tanzania.
He points out that animals in the wild are developing peculiar characteristics and hence the people have to readapt to coexist with the beasts because they are here to stay.
“The giraffe, for instance, initially only fed on leaves of tall trees; however now, with human activities just nigh, they are more inclined to get into farms, lay on the ground to rest and feed on the greenery around, and when done, move to another spot on the farm and do the same,” says Mr Oshumu.
“The wild hounds, buffaloes, zebras, elands, hyenas and many other wild animals now no longer fear the noisy rackets and lightings primarily used to scare them away. Elephants are also now used to the fact that donkeys are the key mode of transport for crop harvests in rural areas and whenever they see them, abetted by their keen sense of smell, they later trail the donkeys to the homestead and raid the granaries where the harvest is stored,” he adds. “It is thus wise to not store your harvests and grains in the house in which you live with your family.”
The locals have no choice but to coexist with the wildlife, because the interaction will always be there. And it is their duty to make these interactions less acrimonious.
Community wildlife conservancy model is one which works well, points out Mr Oshumu, who adds that the system has in the past, and still is in use by communities living near wildlife parks and reserves in Tanzania.
The conservancies there are however called wildlife management areas.
He states that the wild animals, in their own, believe the entire land is theirs to roam and human activities in the vicinity are an intrusion, which is why humanism, being the more sensible of the two, should learn to earn from this framework, without necessarily upsetting the system.
At the Kilimanjaro National Park, which is in Tanzania, for instance, there is the Enduimet Community Wildlife Management Area, which was started by a combined effort of members of 11 villages in the area. The locals now earn from the programme. Others dot the expanse of the park’s fringes and more will soon be coming up.
“Such measures, if fully adopted by communities living around Tsavo, could benefit them in the long run,” says Kenneth Kimitei, the training organiser at African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), an organisation whose mission is to ensure wildlife keeps its place and thrives in Africa.
AWF, together with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), have been training the communities around Tsavo and, by extension, Mkomazi National Park, which borders Tsavo West, in Tanzania, on how to coexist with the wild beasts. The programme is funded by the European Union.
He points out that benefits such as provision of employment for the locals, the proceeds from tourist visits going back to the community’s development, protection of the environment facilitated, improvement of infrastructure, bringing a peaceable coexistence between wildlife and the community, and helping in conservation of certain endangered species, could be achieved if communities living around the parks adopt the system.
Additionally, he says this, in the end, will minimise the acrimony between them and the wildlife, which has, in the recent days resulted in the communities now abetting poaching, as a retaliatory measure.
Mr Kimitei says the Taita ranches located in the area, which number about 30, and measure up to 1.8 million acres cumulatively, could provide an ideal setting for the community wildlife conservancies.
“The key is to get the communities occupying the ranches to see the benefits of the model and set aside areas for their dwelling and farming, a distance away from where they could get in conflict with the wild animals, then designate the other areas near the park, for the conservancies,” says Mr Kimitei.
Kimana Community Wildlife Sanctuary in Kajiado and Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary in Taita-Taveta are such community-based conservancies that border the park, and provide eco-tourism services; protecting the wildlife in Tsavo West, while affording their members an income, according to Mr Kimitei.
Others in the area include the Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary in Kwale and Ngutuni Sanctuary in Tsavo East, among others, which are however private and are individually or corporately owned.
Living with the wildlife does come with challenges however, which the experts say communities have to also adapt to.
Blowing vuvuzelas to an extent initially worked in scaring away wild animals. This, however, now has to be done in a strategic way to be effective. The horns, according to Mr Oshumu, should be blown in synchronicity from various sources so that the sound is as loud as it is disturbingly frightening to the animals.
High intensity flashlights would be a second option and the light beam should be pointed at the eyes of the wild animals to disorient and send them away, according to the anti-poaching commander.
Alternative ways to jolt the wild animals away also include keeping bees that scare away the wildlife, using used oil mixed with ground chilli and tobacco powder, burning the animals’ dung, and positioning random ropes in the farm, which may be misconstrued to be set traps by the animals, according to David Lokiyor, a KWS sergeant based in Bura.
He adds that changing the crop cultivation systems and seasons to confuse and disturb the elephants’ “programmed” timetable, growing ginger and chilli around the farm to produce an odour irritating to the animals and lighting bonfires laced with pepper and elephant dung, also work in keeping wildlife away.
“Importantly, when it comes to staving elephants off, always ensure you are stationed against the wind’s direction, because when the animals catch your scent, they get enraged and charge,” Mr Oshumu advises.
Some semi-pastoralists in the area are also setting up their settlements just at the point of the SGR underpasses, perceivably for easy access of their livestock into the game reserves and parks’ grasslands.
This places the communities on the path of wildlife using the passageways to shuttle between the two Tsavos, which is unadvisable, according to Mr Kimitei, and as such, asks they relocate elsewhere for their own safety and good.