One of the things we were taught in college was that the greatest cause for degradation of the environment was man. The cutting down of trees, clearing of the land through slash and burn techniques and poaching are currently the main destroyers of the environment. I used to really get angry when I saw people burning charcoal and selling the bags and would wonder if they really don’t see the effects of their actions to the environment. I once read that the stretch to Kasigau from the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway used to be full of trees and thick bush to a point where one just couldn’t walk alone. The probability of being knocked down by a rhino or meeting a herd of elephants was high, that is if you didn’t meet lions along the stretch. To anyone who has been on this stretch, you’d be surprised if anything like that existed just 60 years ago. A single generation is all it has taken to wipe that all out. One generation. At times it makes me wonder if my kids will ever be able to see the wildlife in a park or if they will only see them in pictures and videos through my Facebook account. It is troubling to think about.
A herd in the plains
As I said before, I used to get angry when I saw people degrading the environment. I used to. Now, I don’t. I am more understanding of their predicament but still don’t condone it. For the last 3 weeks, I have been helping a Masters student who is doing her thesis on Human-Elephant Conflict and the effects a beehive fence has on farmer’s attitude towards elephants. The beehive fence project is located in a place called Sagalla, within the Tsavo Ecosystem. In every single homestead that we visit, one thing stands out; poverty. I can’t say that I come from a wealthy family, but I thank God for the environment I was born in. Among the many questions that we are asking, are -what do farmers do to meet the basic needs of the family. All are saying that they engage in farming but that is always affected by elephant raids or if the rains fail them. They say that they will work for 3 months and in one night, the jumbos come and wipe out everything. They use all forms of scare tactics to force the animals off their farms, but it ends being an all-night vigil as they always return. For some, spending the whole night awake is too much. The next day, they must be early in the fields to fend off baboons. The farmers say they feel they are there to feed the elephants but no one is feeding them. If a farmer hasn’t been lucky, they end up harvesting little or nothing. Then they have to start looking for money to feed the family instead of concentrating on looking for money to school their children. The one experience that is still etched in my mind is when an old man in his 70’s was describing to us how elephants ate his crops. He has to fend for his family and to look after his wife who was sick. I saw tears forming in his eyes and his voice was beginning to break, but he composed himself before his emotions were visible to us. There were harrowing tales of people witnessing their neighbours being killed by the elephants. To be honest, you’d expect them hate elephants with a passion. They don’t. They only have issues with the jumbos when they invade their farms, kill or maim. If they are in the bush and not in the farms, in their own words, “sina maneno na ndovu”, “I have no issues with the elephant”. Are they saying this because they don’t want to be seen as hating the elephant and while we are wearing T-shirts saying Save The Elephant? Maybe, but so far, all the comments have been genuine. To those of you who may not know this, the government, through Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), doesn’t compensate for destroyed property by wildlife. They might give monetary consolation. They do, however, compensate for life lost. It’s an outdated law that is currently under review by the present government. So what do they do if elephants have invaded their farms and/or the rainfall wasn’t enough? Some said they have to resort to burning charcoal. They do it not because they want to, but they have to live and they have to eat. They have children who need to go to school. They feel helpless because KWS doesn’t compensate them, and they always describe the elephants as “theirs”, meaning the wildlife belongs to the government through KWS. To be frank, every time I am hearing all this, my mind is on the women of Kasigau. They, too, go through a similar experience. The good thing about most of them is that they have 2 farms; one that borders the ranch and one that is close to their homesteads. The one near the ranch is the one that is normally raided by elephants during crop raiding season, but at least, for some, they have another farm they can depend on for food. But not all are like this. Some end up being like the families in Sagalla, where they have nothing to feed their families. It, therefore, is not a surprise that they will end up cutting down trees to get firewood, burn charcoal, buy cheap game meat and will be indifferent when they hear that elephants are being poached. Their main concerns are their immediate needs; food, school fees, shelter and clothing. The rest of what we may consider vital and important like conservation of the environment and protecting the elephant from extinction becomes secondary if not a tertiary concern. That’s where we come in. Their baskets are what they have during those moments. I always tell them that I am helping them source a market for their baskets because they have elephant problems. The basket business is to help alleviate the impacts of crop raids and unpredictable weather patterns that are prevalent in the coastal region. The raw material used to make the baskets is sisal. Sisal is a delicacy to the elephants. In some villages, they have lost all their sisal, while in others, some are still surviving. They, therefore, end up buying their sisal from surrounding villages. This, however, hasn’t deterred them from continuing their basket business. I haven’t done a survey to see what kind of attitudes they have towards the elephant. I want to make sure that the basket business has been going on for a while and that they are able to reap tangible benefits from the business before I prod for their attitudes towards the elephants. The indifference to the elephant is what worries me most. That indifference is so easily transferable to the next generation of kids living under their roofs. This basket business is not just a way to help the women get an alternative means of income. It’s my way of ensuring that my kids get to see herds of elephants in Tsavo from the roof of my car. It’s my way of ensuring that the African elephant gets to live another millennia in the Tsavo without their habitat being degraded through clearing of bush for farming. I can achieve that if the communities that are in constant contact with the elephant understand that their lives are being cushioned from losses. My desire would be they make enough money from baskets that they can cease large scale farming and just work on their small shambas outside their houses to meet their everyday vegetable needs. It may be a tall order, but if they see basketry as a profitable venture, there remains a possibility of that change happening. But that won’t happen without your support. I won’t ask for donations. I ask that you help sell the Kasigau baskets. You’ll be going a long way in saving the elephant, and that basket you buy will help change perceptions and attitudes for a generation to come.
A farmer inspecting his beehive along the fence
DISCLAIMER: KWS is doing all that it can to mitigate Human-Wildlife Conflict. A day before writing this article, we were in their offices. They eagerly accept any help given to mitigate Human-Elephant Conflict. Save The Elephant’s Elephant and Bee Project in Sagalla, too, is helping to protect farms from elephant invasions through their bee hive fences. My hope is they will eventually be able to get enough funds to build similar bee hive fences in Kasigau for those women who don’t have two shambas but depend on one that is sadly affected by the elephant raids. For more information about the Elephant and Bee Project, here is the link: http://www.elephantsandbees.com