Human-elephant conflict: Can we coexist in peace?

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Frank, one of MEP’s collared elephants, walks through Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve. (Photo: David Maeri)

During a drive through Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve, one will frequently catch the sight of the African elephant. Sometimes, a solitary male will appear along the horizon, or a herd of mothers and small babies walk slowly across the rich green landscape. 

While the view of this majestic animal is remarkable for tourists, for local communities elephant sightings are accompanied with a sense of dread.   

“An elephant is very nomadic, it moves in all directions and has no predator. They go into the villages and cause destruction. They cause the deforestation of trees, sometimes they kill people,” Kuntai Koilel, who has lived his whole life in the Mara, told CGTN. “If you are a farmer, all the crops will be eaten away by an elephant, no matter how you fence it.”

Human-Elephant Conflict 

Tensions have long existed between humans and elephants in the Maasai Mara. An elephant can destroy a subsistence farm in just a few hours, creating a devastating impact for local communities. Crops, homes, and livestock can be destroyed, all with little hope of compensation. 

Desperate to protect their land and livelihoods, farmers often resort to firing arrows, throwing rocks, or creating loud noises to drive off the massive animals. 

Within this environment, elephants are considered the enemy and they pay a grave price for it. 

Increasing tensions 

Alongside poaching, human-elephant conflict is the largest threat to the existence of the African elephant. However, while the illegal killing of elephants for their tusks has decreased over recent years, human-elephant conflict is on the rise.  

This can partly be attributed to the increase of the human population in the Maasai Mara, which is intensifying competition for space between people and elephants. 

The tensions worsened in 2016, “after a big drought in the Maasai Mara wiped out a lot of livestock”, explains Wilson Sairowua, a Tracking Manager with the Mara Elephant Project, an organisation working to mitigate human-elephant conflict in the area. 

Following the loss of their animals, communities started switching from livestock to farming for their livelihoods. But the growing number of crops in human settlements act as a major pull factor for elephants in search of extra nutrients, with a growing number of elephants encroaching on human settlements.    

According to Sairowua, tensions are particularly high during this time of year, as crop ripening season falls between June to mid-August. And for the communities relying on these crops as a form of livelihood, the presence of these large mammals can be incredibly destructive. 

These encounters have fostered growing resentment against the elephants amongst the human population. “The biggest challenge now is how we can reduce this human-elephant conflict,” Wilson says.

Mitigating conflict

Within this context, the Mara Elephant Project (MEP) team has been notably busy, working day and night to mitigate human-elephant conflict in the area. 

“We can receive a phone call that an elephant has gone to destroy farmland at any time. So we are ready all the time, any time,” says David Sairowua, an MEP ranger who has been working for the last eight years. “To guard the elephant we also patrol every morning, to see if they are eating well, if any are injured. Our work is to take care of these elephants and to stay on standby all the time.” 

Local Maasai rangers like Sairowua are the backbone of the Mara Elephant Project’s operation. The rangers live out in the field for two months at a time and respond to any calls regarding human-elephant conflict. 

Key to the work of the rangers is their relationship with the local communities in the area. A growing number of locals now know they can call the rangers to come and safely remove an elephant if it threatens village.  

“The community now are reporting directly to the rangers, if there are any conflicts in the area,” Wilson Sairowua notes. “In my area now, people are communicating to me all the time, where ever there are elephants or poachers spotted in the area.”

Alongside community relations, the MEP also relies on the collaring of elephants to track the animals’ movements and ensure they stay away from settlement areas. Currently, MEP has 17 collared elephants, that are monitored in real-time daily through Google Earth, with rangers relying on the data for their daily patrol planning.

Looking forward

While these tactics appear to be having a positive impact on human-elephant relations and the number of elephants in the Maasai Mara has increased, human-elephant conflict in the area still remains a serious issue. 

Conservationists insist that elephants require larger protected areas and more secure travel corridors to ensure the complete end to human-elephant conflict. 

“The elephants need three things: security, space, and habitat. With the population increase, people are getting closer to the reserve, and if there was space there would be a reduction in conflict,” Wilson says.  

Until long term solutions arise, the work of the Mara Elephant Project and their rangers in the field remains crucial, paving the way towards a sense of peace between humans and elephants in the Maasai Mara. 

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