On a Sunday night after supper in December 2018 at Sagalla village in Taita-Taveta County, Ms. Patience Karisa tucked her three children to bed before retiring to her own.
She would be awoken at 2 am by a loud thud on her roof. A deafening screech followed.
She watched in horror as the roof over her head was peeled away and an elephant thrust its trunk through the open space searching for maize stored in sacks.
Motherly survival instincts kicked in. Ms. Karisa grabbed mattress, clothes and bedding and dumped them over her children to hide them from the trunk.
She squeezed herself against a wall, closed her eyes and started praying.
“I have never been so terrified but I thank God the children, though equally terrified, didn’t scream,” the teary mother later admitted.
Neighbors, alerted by noises, beat empty cans and utensils forcing the herd of elephants to flee back to a nearby forest.
Such hallowing tales of close shaves with elephants in Sagalla are so common that residents no longer bother reporting them.
Scarier is an emerging trend where jumbos are losing their fears of humans and are raiding houses is search of flour, stored food grains and sugar.
Mr. Silas Mwambinji, an elder in Ndara, claims the area has over 500 elephants; bulls, mothers and their calves roaming in Talio, Kajire, Sagalla and other neighboring villages.
The elephants occupy a thickly-forested area from where they raid farms and disrupt human activities. He adds the current invasion feels different from past ones because the pachyderms seem to have basically settled.
“They are not going anywhere. They have decided to stay here,” said Mr. Mwambiji.
Schools have also been affected as pupils are reporting past the nine o’clock because most are escorted by their parents.
In December, learners at Kileva Primary School had a major scare after three elephants wandered too close the classrooms.
As a result, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has come under heavy criticism from the residents and local leaders over the invasion. Locals claim KWS is overwhelmed by the sheer number of elephants roaming the area. They allege rangers on the ground are stretched too thin to have any meaningful impact.
Mzee Mwambiji estimates that over 1,000 acres of maize crops have been destroyed since the invasion started last year.
When contacted, Ms. Zainabu Salim, KWS Senior Warden for Community Service, said KWS patrol teams were on the ground working round-the-clock to ensure such conflicts were eliminated.
She attributed the problem to massive human settlement in areas that were traditionally migration corridors.
She said change of land use had interfered with annual migration patterns for elephants.
“There has been change in land use in migration corridors with a lot of settlements in rangelands,” she said.
She revealed that even the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) underpasses specially set aside for elephants while moving from ranches to Tsavo East National Park have been blocked by residential homes.
The worst hit is the Ndara underpass and one near Izera ranch. Stranded herds of elephants have been unable to cross to Tsavo East and result to going back to Sagalla forest.
She said KWS was engaging the Kenya Railway and Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) for directions over the illegal settlements in such vital facilities.
Ms. Zaibabu said contrary to the impression KWS was overwhelmed by elephants, several activities were ongoing to drive the jumbos from Sagalla. Specialists with Problem Animal Management Unit (PAMU) who are backing up teams of rangers are on the ground to manage the jumbos. The teams are based Mwambiti, Kajire and Talio which are considered as trouble hotspot.
Between December 2018 and January, KWS had four chopper aerial drives that reinforced the ground jumbo drive operation. Over 150 elephants were pushed into Tsavo East National Park. Additional aerial support came from KWS partners where slightly over 300 elephants were pushed back to the ranches.
The warden says the migration pattern is normal but the effects are slightly magnified because of radical change in land use and rapid settlements in areas traditionally left bare.
She said the situation is now manageable but continuous monitoring is ongoing.
She added that the elephants’ movement was being mapped by monitoring the migration trends of collared elephants which are known to be using traditional corridors.
“We now have less than 30 elephants in Sagalla but our teams are still working to push them into the park or the ranches,” she said. Once driven into the ranches, KWS expect the jumbos to stay there or move to Tsavo East through underpasses that are not blocked by human settlement.
However, smooth ground operation by KWS is hampered by lack of access roads in several Sagalla villages and thick undergrowth which easily conceals families of jumbos.
Mr. John Mlamba, a wildlife expert, adds that heavy rains have led to rejuvenation of heavy forest growth favored by elephants for shade and foliage. This has slowed down their migration to Tsavo East National Park triggering daily confrontation with the farmers.
“The fact that elephants are not moving had put them in direct conflict with farmers,” he said.
As a long term solution, KWS plans to erect a 100-km permanent solar-powered fence from Mwatate Sisal Estate to Kasighau.
The fence will protect farm and leave migration corridors open.
The crisis in Sagalla is also exacerbated by the surge in population of elephants.
According to latest elephant census of 2017, number of jumbos in Tsavo Conservation area stood at 12,866 from 11,076 in 2014.
However, local leaders blame KWS for not doing enough.
Sagalla Member of County Assembly (MCA) Godwin Kilele said thousands of farmers have lost their crops to elephants. He adds that elephants were putting people’s lives in danger by destroying their food.
“We are tired of complaining and we are now ready to defend and protect our farms from these animals,” said the MCA.
The MCA in one time lead other local leaders in alleging that the constitution permitted farmers to protect themselves by killing or maiming such wildlife.
Experts refute these claims noting that Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013 places the burden of proof on the person who kills the wildlife.
“The law allows such actions in extreme of circumstances but the person who kills must prove he had no choice but to kill. It’s not as easy as the leaders put it,” said Mr. Mlamba.
Ms. Zainabu called for constant engagements with local leaders over conservation issues.
She said such talks would yield results on more urgent matters including how to fast-track on delayed matters of compensation to farmers whose crops were destroyed.
She stated that no elephants have been translocated in the area, noting such exercise required approval from highest KWS offices.
“There is need to speed-up compensation for farmers affected by the conflicts,” she proposed.
To date, sh 35 million have been paid as compensation for deaths caused by wildlife in the region. The money is only for seven fatalities reported since 2014. No money has been paid for crop destruction.
By Wagema Mwangi