It was a Friday night around 10:00pm in Marmanet, West Laikipia. I was at that point of falling into a deep sleep when screams rang out, followed by the banging of metal objects. More screams and more unpleasant noises quickly followed. At that point, my mind was racing! This town that was completely foreign to me, might just be the last town I would ever explore. Surely outsiders must have come in and were now on a rampage! My first thought…hide the little valuable items I have. I then left my room to find my colleague, Moses, to assure him that all would be well. I was ready to stand on the front line to make sure that we got out of this situation…whatever that situation was.
I found Moses already in the car. He was cool and extremely calm. “Let’s go and help them”, he said. Not wanting him to sense my deep fear, I could only manage a feeble “ok”. We drove for just a few minutes before we came across a sizeable number of residents, the source of all the screaming and banging. Just a few feet from where they stood were several elephants, eating their way through the young maize and bean crops appearing to be not the least affected by the ruckus. For just one second, I thought of taking a selfie… after all, I have to document this unbelievable situation that completely shattered all the majestic images I had of elephants…..you know the ones where the mummy and baby elephant walk up to the car, say hello by sniffing around the strange contraption, give a little wave of their trunks and then walk calmly away. But the fear, anger and sheer anxiety in the air made me put my phone away. I joined one of the Marmanet residents to find out more about what was happening. For the 4th night in a row that week, 3 elephants had left the Rumuruti Forest and were now feeding on food that was meant to sustain numerous families for a good part of the year. “This is our way of life now. We have been doing this for years. I have children that do not know how to sleep a whole night through. This is just the way things are,” Peter Kaminjui explained to me.
We all watched helplessly as the situation goes on for a further 4 hours before fatigue and feelings of abandonment finally take over and we all retreat to our respective dwellings, hoping that the morning will bring a much needed solution. Sleep evaded me the rest of the night. How was this possible? How can my favourite animal bring so much distress on undeserving Laikipians? What happened to the friendly elephants that reside in my mind?
The next morning one of the resident farmers made a beeline for us…. “come and see what the elephants have done. You have to pay for this!!”. We cautiously followed him to his shamba and could not believe what we saw. Remnants of crops that would have yielded bananas, oranges, sugarcane and potatoes were scattered all around. In just one night everything he would have cultivated was gone!
Residents in Marmanet have been facing this elephant problem for years. Moses affirms this – “I can see my children inheriting this situation. My father, Daudi Koske, chased elephants when he was young. He taught me how to chase the elephants and now I am teaching my son Kiprop, who is now an expert! Our children don’t need to go for trips to see elephants in conservancies because the elephants come to us. This situation has become worse and I am sure my grand children will be elephant chasers too!”
Moses goes on to tell me that he now buys all his food from the supermarket. He is pained because he is capable of feeding his family from his land but can’t because the elephants destroy everything. His comment brings back tales of the fertile lands in West Laikipia that my parents once told me about “this is where the best potatoes that make the best chips in Kenya are grown…. See those vegetables displayed on the side of the highway? They all come from West Laikipia….. that’s where all the food that we enjoy comes from,” I recall my mom’s words with sadness in my heart.
Elephants are not the only culprits here. Other wild animals like leopards, impalas, monkeys, warthogs and guinea fouls feed on crops meant for the dinner table and market place. Many mechanisms have been adopted to try and scare away the animals, but few work. Burning of hot pepper, creating a distraction through noise, increasing vigilance at night, and the use of beehives just don’t seem to have their intended impact any more. Residents were promised a fence to keep out the wildlife years ago, but that too has failed. I asked over 20 residents what they think the core problems are that has heightened this situation. Their response:
- The prolonged drought.
- Pastoralist’s invasion into private lands and Rumuruti Forest.
- Increased elephant population.
- Lack of Government support.
- Politics and poor leadership.
I left Marmanet deep in thought. I wondered how the residents would survive. I wondered how long they could continue living these sleepless nights, consumed with a frustration most of us know little about. Moses could sense my trepidation and in his usual calm way he says, “One day we will get our fence…I know it will not solve all our problems, but that would be a very good start to getting back our lives as farmers”.
John Gitonga is currently an intern at the Laikipia Wildlife Forum and wrote this story while on assignment in Marmanet, West Laikipia.