Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Elephant Appeal: Why conservation is about forging a friendship

Farmers have had crops repeatedly destroyed by marauding elephants

Joseki George looks in dismay at his battered crop. Tomatoes, paw paw, watermelon, fruit trees – all destroyed by a family of 20 or so elephants a few days ago just before harvest.

When the elephants came, he ran out with sticks to chase them off. He threw stones, and banged on metal pots, but the elephants continued to feast, undeterred.

“I just don’t see the benefit in having these animals that come and destroy everything,” says Mr George, 24, gesturing towards his ruined crop. “A lot of people come here to preach [conservation], but nothing happens.”

Mr George’s shamba lies at the heart of the elephant corridor between Tsavo East and West, which jointly form Kenya’s largest national park. Such is the bitterness felt by many of the local communities here towards the elephants that many are engaged in the poaching that is devastating Tsavo’s elephant population. “If the communities aren’t deriving tangible benefits from wildlife, then the wildlife disappears,” says Max Graham, founder and CEO  of Space for Giants, beneficiary of this year’s Christmas Appeal in The Independent.

“The soft conservancy approach in the long term is going to be critical.”

In Tsavo and the surrounding areas – many elephants live outside of the national park – the precise number of elephants killed by poachers is hard to come by. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) suggests around 20 have been poached this year, but conservationists consider a more realistic figure to be four or five times that.

While the most serious – and numerous – poaching incidents are largely thought to be carried out by Somalis who come from the north of Kenya with machine guns, locals in the Tsavo area are heavily engaged in bushmeat hunting – both for subsistence and commercial purposes – and the killing of elephants with poison arrows.

These remain the hardest to detect, for there is no telltale gunshot to lead the overstretched KWS rangers to an elephant carcass. It can be days, even weeks, before a poisoned elephant is recovered, its tusks long gone and sold for a large profit.

When a poacher can sell a tusk of ivory locally for 20,000 shillings (£140) a kilo – an average tusk weighs around 14 kilos – the financial incentives for killing elephants is clear.

Nevertheless, even around Tsavo, there have been successes.

Kajire, a small village just a few kilometres from Tsavo, was once well known for its hostility towards the wildlife, such was the devastation caused to crops by rampaging elephants. Many villagers – some of them expert trackers – were involved in poaching with poisoned arrows.

But a project by Wildlife Works to introduce a carbon credit programme – where socially-conscious companies pay to ensure the preservation of forests – has brought a slew of benefits to the local communities, including putting many of the local children through school via a bursary system.

“Conservation is an expensive luxury to them,” says Rob Dodson, of Wildlife Works. “People don’t hate the wildlife, but if it damages [the wellbeing of] their family … boy, they hate it.”

Duncan Ngari, a 54-year-old farmer in Kajire, has seen his crop repeatedly destroyed by marauding elephants, yet he speaks of their preservation with the zeal of a recent convert, suggesting the construction of trenches to both provide run-off water to the animals, and natural protection to the farms.

“If you can create some incentives, people will become friends to the animals,” he says. “When you hear an elephant has been killed nearby, I can 100 per cent assure you that it’s nobody from here.”

Space for Giants, the beneficiaries of The Independent’s Christmas charity campaign, is empowering local communities to protect their smallholder crops from crop-raiding elephants by supporting the construction and management of electrified fences, in addition to providing direct benefits for local communities living with elephants through technical support for Kenya’s new wildlife bill and the creation of a new wildlife conservancy that will generate employment, education and security, for local people, forever.