Nicholas Wadhams, Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, January 28, 2007
(01-28) 04:00 PST Narok, Kenya -- Mary Sinigi hates elephants.
In December, an elephant terrorized her village, chased her husband down a dirt path and ripped the roof off her home while she and her five children cowered inside.
"Because of elephants, we never rest," Sinigi said, recalling the predawn invasion. "When the kids leave in the morning to go out to school, we are not certain they will come back until we see them again."
Most Kenyans do not share the common Western belief that the elephant is a lovable beast in desperate need of protection and worth the several thousand dollars' cost of a safari vacation. To them, the elephant is a 6-ton garden pest, a wrecking ball that kills, tramples and terrifies.
That anger reflects what conservationists say is a worrisome trend: Conflict between humans and wildlife -- and particularly elephants -- is on the rise, sparking a backlash among Kenyans against the very animals that are considered treasured assets.
That anger is being aired in a national debate this year, as Kenya conducts a new review of its wildlife policy, unchanged since the 1970s. The policy failed to take into account a booming human population that has encroached on the country's national parks and erected towns in the middle of wildlife migration routes.
Most of the possible changes have not been made public. But several ideas include buying land along migration routes, paying cash quickly to those whose lives or livelihoods have been ruined and -- in perhaps the most controversial proposal -- allowing limited hunting to cull problem animals.
"The problem is, of course, expanding human population that's taking up a lot of the space that elephants traditionally use on their migratory travels," said Daphne Sheldrick, a conservationist who runs an elephant sanctuary outside Nairobi. "Where elephants come into conflict with humans, those elephants will have to disappear or be moved."
Newspapers across East and southern Africa are filled with stories about elephants destroying crops, killing farmers, wandering into slums where they've never appeared before. In 2005, an elephant trampled an old man and then crashed his funeral -- spurring irate mourners to block a road and pelt passing cars with rocks in frustration.
Anecdotal evidence points to a rise in the illegal trade of bush meat, and poaching continues to be a problem in many parks. Statistics show that some 90 percent of Kenyans value wildlife in the abstract -- but only 5 percent value wildlife on their own land.
Current laws have stripped people of the right to kill problem animals themselves, and punishment for doing so can include prison time. Yet if an elephant, a lion or a buffalo kills a person, the victim's relatives receive just 30,000 Kenyan shillings -- about $400 -- if they get anything at all. There is no compensation for destruction of livestock or crops.
"If I'm not getting benefit, I would rather kill the animal than have my brother or sister killed," said Yusuf Ole Petenya, a Maasai who works with the African Conservation Centre, a Nairobi-based research group. "Of course, we have an interest in wildlife, but I'm also interested in seeing my brother or my sister alive. How can I have happiness if I wake up in the morning and my brother is dead because he's been mauled by a lion next door?"
The resentment toward the rules on wild animals was evident at a mid-December meeting to discuss the national review in Narok, a town outside the renowned Masai Mara game reserve. This is a place where everyone knows someone who has been killed by a charging buffalo. A nearby orphanage is populated by children who lost their parents to two main killers: HIV/AIDS and animals.
Speaker after speaker in an eight-hour meeting stood up to rail against the government and the Kenya Wildlife Service, which is chiefly responsible for managing wildlife. They criticized foreign conservation groups, which they suspected would rather control the people than the elephants. And they railed against the government for refusing to protect them or their wildlife.
Tourism, a leading engine of the Kenyan economy, is booming -- it comprises more than 20 percent of the government's annual income -- but these people said their villages don't see a dime.
"We've seen over the years that this wildlife brings a lot of economic benefits to the rest of the country," said Meitamei Olol Dapash, director of the Maasai Environmental Research Coalition headquartered in Washington, D.C. "The wildlife is in Maasailand, but the benefits are going to the rest of the country, leaving the Maasai people with nothing, just bearing the pain of their people being killed by wildlife."
The Kenya Wildlife Service itself admits many of its failings surrounding its mission: "To sustain and ably manage wildlife resources for the benefit of the people of Kenya and as a world heritage."
Aside from elephants and rhinoceros, wildlife numbers are down. The country is waiting for a new land-use policy that could bring order to what has been the chaotic subdivision and sale of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat for tea cultivation, flower farms, and scattered plots of maize, bananas and mangos.
"The policy has not changed over the years, and KWS recognizes that," said agency spokeswoman Connie Maina. "There are so many gaps."
The new elephant problem is gripping much of Africa, not just Kenya. In Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania, elephant populations stabilized at about 600,000 -- down from 1.5 million in the 1970s -- and are beginning to rise.
Capable of consuming several hundred pounds of food and at least 30 gallons of water a day, elephants have the capacity to turn heavily vegetated ecosystems into near desert. They also kill other species that crowd them.
Villagers say any policy change will have to address not only the changes in Kenya, but also the changes in the wildlife that surrounds them.
In the Rift Valley south of Nairobi, a flash point in the conflict between humans and elephants, the once-skittish beasts seem to have figured out that the laws are working in their favor.
"The elephants are very polite," said Steven Nteetu, a cattle owner and farmer near the village of Olkirimatian. "Even if they come here to the farms, you can shout and shout, but they can look at you and continue with eating. What we have seen now is that the animals are not wild. They are coming nearby. They are not afraid of the human being."