In the morning of July 2015, Christine Muisyo, a small-scale farmer at Ndingai village neighboring Tsavo National park in Mwatate sub-county woke up to every farmer’s worst nightmare. The entire crop on her farm was gone. Maize, beans, pawpaw, bananas, oranges and pigeon peas that were ready for harvest had vanished overnight. What was left behind was unrecognizable; a flattened field with some few broken stumps still standing.
To Muisyo, the crop carnage was an additional anguish for the past several years over the perennial havoc wrecked on farms by herds of marauding elephants from the nearby Tsavo National Park.“That was the lowest moment of my life,” recalls the farmer.
She was not alone. Hundreds of other farmers from Ndingai to Kamutonga and Chungaunga villages had suffered a similar fate. All their farms had fallen; trampled under the massive weights of over 200 elephants. The herd was huge; their appetite insatiable.
When the jumbos retreated to Tsavo National Park through the ranches at dawn, hunger satiated, they left behind massive destruction. One by one, forlorn farmers emerged from their houses to take silent mourning walks amid the devastation.
A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) evaluation team that arrived to take stock of the damage found a charged village. Over the years, crop damage assessment had become a mere formality. Unless there was a death, compensation for crop loss was unheard off. KWS would mumble a few words of apology, assess the damage, ask the complainant to fill a compensation sheet and then leave very fast. That morning, Ms. Muisyo had had enough.
“I was very clear to KWS. I told them I never wanted their compensation. It could not bring back what I had lost. I only asked them to tell their bosses in Nairobi to put up a fence between me and the elephants. That was my single request,” she recalls.
In 2017, her wish was granted. The government announced plans to erect a 30-km Kamutonga-Alia electric fence to stop the persistent human-wildlife conflict. The Sh 50-million fence was in compliance with a presidential directive issued during a rally in Voi town in 2016.
Three year after it was implemented, the fence is being cited as an example of how practical solutions by the government can address decades-long challenges facing citizens and in so doing empower rural-communities into becoming self-reliant groups.
For the long-suffering farmers of Kamutonga, Chungaunga, Manoa and Ndingai, the reversal of their dwindling fortunes has been phenomenal. Traditionally, farming in those areas was deemed a ‘mission impossible.’ It was a waste of time and resources. Drought, lack of water and the recurrent wildlife invasion made agriculture an exercise in futility.
“These used to be elephants’ lands. Jumbos came and left when they wanted. We had lions and buffaloes and leopards come at will,” says Peter Muthoka, a Ndingai farmer. His farm is the immediate neighbour to the fence.
With the fence, the villagers can now tell a tale of hope and optimism. There is also a creeping belief that the villages, often dismissed as wastelands have the potential of becoming major food producers.
Mr. Simon Nzola, a farmer at Mkengelenyi village, says it is three years since elephants, buffaloes and lions stopped raiding his 15-acre farm. Since 1988 when he first settled in the area, his has been a song of loss after loss. The fence has addressed one of his most persistent headaches.
“It would take a miracle to get 20-kg of maize in a season. Elephants made sure nothing grew. Last season, we harvested so much that trucks from Nairobi came to buy,” he says.
In his thatch-roofed granary, there are seven bags of peas from his last harvest. A cursory glance at his farm shows the progress. A couple of goats roam around unattended and fruit trees, banana and pawpaw, stand tall in the sun. A short distance away, rows of jaded kales put up a spirited fight against the scalding heat.
Mr. Nzola says water and lack of a proper market remain the only twin challenges. “The traders coming here are buying cheaply. If we can get water and a good market, we will surely develop this area,” he says.
Naomi Mweni, a farmer at Kamutonga and a mother of four, says the practice of buying food from the market to feed families has stopped. She points out that during the last rain season, she recorded an unprecedented harvest of cassava, maize, beans and pigeon peas. Several bags are still in her granary.
“We are now farmers proper and work on our farms. We don’t have to rely on food donations from anyone,” she explains.
She explains that a major cause of food insecurity in the region has always been destruction of crops by wildlife. She admits the fence has addressed that issue as most farmers had enough to eat and sell.
“We have food in our stores. We are now working on increasing production for the market,” she said.
On his part Mwachabo location Chief Bernard Kadali says the electric fence has managed to eliminate the conflict between his residents and the wildlife. Mwachabo, he added, has traditionally been viewed as an epicenter for such conflicts.
The chief explains that herds of elephants migrated from Tsavo through the ranches and strayed into human settlement areas. Other animals like lions and buffaloes also raided farms resulting to livestock deaths and massive crop losses.
“There was no rest for us whenever elephants invaded. Farmers, KWS and national government administrative officials spent countless hours driving these animals back to the park,” he said.
Mr. Kadali says in the past three years, farmers have reported unprecedented yields as per the objective of erecting the fence.
He however clarified that of the proposed 30-km fence, only 26-km is complete disclosing that a boundary dispute at Alia area involving the locals, members of Luarenyi Ranch and Taita-Hills sanctuary has seen a four-kilometer section of the fence stall.
“The dispute is in court and we hope it will be resolved to allow the completion of the entire fence,” he said.
Still, the fence has had its share of challenges. Poachers and cattle rustlers have been reported to vandalize it to create illegal openings to gain access in and out of the ranches. These openings are used to drive out livestock stolen from the ranches. More worryingly, elephants and other wild animals used these openings to get out of the protected areas into human-settlements areas.
In 2018, vandals destroyed 600 meters of wire but a week later, community members led KWS and security agents to the home of the prime suspect responsible for the vandalism. The looted wires were recovered from his house.
The chief said such an act shows the significance the villagers have placed on the fence.“They knew who had destroyed the fence and led us to him. The community knows the value of this project. They own it now,” he said.
Ms. Muisyo agrees. She says that farmers who had experienced the agony of losses regard the fence as godsend. She terms it as the only thing keeping their farms safe from the wildlife in the park. She however says water remains a challenge for a community that wants to venture into agribusiness.
“The government brought this fence. If it can give us water, we can transform these farms totally,” she says.
By Wagema Mwangi