Kenyan avocado farm could spell disaster for elephants

A battle to close the farm in wildlife and Masai grazing area warns of wider threats to come for Kenya’s Amboseli ecosystem

Caroline Chebet
Thursday 06 May 2021 10:13
<p>KiliAvo’s farm lies in the middle of an elephant migration path and key Masai grazing area</p>

KiliAvo’s farm lies in the middle of an elephant migration path and key Masai grazing area

Within the sprawling plains of Kimana area in Amboseli in Kenya, overlooked by the scenic snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, a territorial fight for survival between an avocado farm and a wildlife and livestock conservation area is rife.

Conservationists and community say the 180-acre farm that has been cleared and prepared for farming by KiliAvo Fresh Limited at Kimana area spell a disaster to the movement of iconic elephants into and out of Amboseli National Park.

The farm, the community says, will also deal a blow to the livelihoods of local pastoralists who depend on the vast spaces to graze.

“It is a disaster we are staring at if the avocado farm continues its operations,” said Samuel Ole Kaanki, chair of the Amboseli Landowners Conservancies Association, a group representing most local Masai in the area.

“It is located in one of the critical migratory corridors that are key to wildlife, especially elephants moving between Amboseli National Park to Chyulu Hills and Tsavo. This will result in massive human-wildlife conflicts.”

The battle over KiliAvo is a glimpse into a wider issue. Huge landscapes that were communally held by communities of nomadic pastoralist Masai are being carved up into individual pieces of land and handed out to individuals. Many opt to keep their land open to earn income from raising livestock and from tourism companies that pay to bring tourists on safari to see the wildlife that also lives on the land.

But others are fencing or selling their plots, raising fears that the landscape that must remain open for wildlife and livestock to be able to thrive, will be fragmented to the point even elephants grazing beneath Mt Kilimanjaro will become a thing of the past.

KiliAvo Fresh Limited which was issued a licence in August 2020 for commercial crop farming despite the area being identified as a wildlife corridor and as a livestock and conservation tourism area, not a cultivation area, by the local Kajiado County government.

The company is now fighting for its survival, banking on an appeal against the revocation of its licence by Kenya’s environmental regulator, the National Environmental and Management Authority (Nema).

“The project is an ambitious one and the locals will get jobs just as in the wildlife conservancies. No resident is objecting but there is so much politics to stop our operations yet we are rightfully here,” Jeremiah Saalash, KiliAvo Fresh Farm manager said.

In September last year, Nema’s Director-General warned the owners of KiliAvo Fresh Ltd, Harji Mavji Kerai and Suresh Kerai, of the agency’s intention to revoke its license. The letter also directed the farm to immediately halt activities at the site.The company then lodged an appeal to the National Environment Tribunal, arguing that they followed the procedure to get the documents including the Nema license. The Tribunal dismissed that case at the end of April, and Nema followed through on its revocation of KiliAvo’s licence the next day.

“It is our own property which we legally acquired. We got the title deed and we have since put an electric fence on the farm. If it was a migratory corridor, then why are there title deeds?” Saalash, KiliAvo Fresh Farm manager said.

KiliAvo, whose owners are not local but live in the capital Nairobi, bought the 180 acres from a local Masai who was a member of a former ‘group ranch’ - a communal Masai landholding - whose land was divided among its members in the early 2000s.However, according to Ole Kaanki, head of the Amboseli Landowners Conservancies Association, the agricultural farm is in the middle of a wildlife corridor and fencing will be a blow to conservation.

“It has already been fenced and the farm is in the middle of a wildlife dispersal area, meaning there will be an intensity of human-wildlife conflicts because the wildlife will find it hard moving around,” Ole Kaanki said.

Ole Kaanki said they feel the space should be left as a dispersal area for wildlife and to ease movements of livestock. He said Maasai pastoralists in the area are dependent on livestock keeping and fencing off the area will bar movement of livestock across the landscape.

“We do not oppose farming in general but we feel that something should be done,” he said. “We feel that space should be left as a dispersal area. Initially, we have tried initiating talks so that the farm can be relocated elsewhere where it is more productive and away from this corridor that is also critical to pastoralists but the talks did not bear any fruits.”  

Daniel Ole Sambu is programme coordinator for the Big Life Foundation, a conservation organisation operating in the wider Amboseli ecosystem. According to Ole Sambu, Amboseli is home to some of the few remaining ‘tuskers’ - elephants carrying huge ivory weighing up to 100lb or 50 kg on each side.The Amboseli ecosystem, he says, supports over 2,000 elephants and Kimana area is one of the critical dispersal areas.

“Fencing these areas will mean that both livestock and wildlife movements are hindered,” said Ole Sambu. “Operating a farm also means that agricultural chemicals will be used, which will also be detrimental to wildlife besides the scramble for the little water resources in the area.”

Ole Sambu said sustainable enterprises that support wildlife and tourism would be ideal in such areas but avocado farming would spell a disaster.

“Activities that would promote conservation would be ideal for such landscapes. This is a semi-arid area and there is nowhere near enough water to sustain a big commercial farm. It will ruin the livelihoods of smallholders farming in the approved agricultural zone and be detrimental to both conservation of wildlife and movements of livestock,” Ole Sambu said.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 Wildlife Migratory Corridors and Dispersal Areas report highlights the Kimana corridor as among the most threatened within the Greater Amboseli ecosystem.The report also highlights fences in the Amboseli-Kimana-Kuku-Chyulu-Tsavo West National park dispersal areas blocking wildlife movements. It also highlights changes in land tenure that have led to increased sales of land as major threats in the Greater Amboseli.

“Sub-division, shambas and fences around Namelok and Kimana, which threaten continued wildlife movements (especially of elephants) to and from Amboseli,” the report notes.The Greater Amboseli Ecosystem consists of the Amboseli National Park which covers 150 square miles, and the six surrounding group ranches of Kimana/Tikondo, Olgulului/Lolarashi, Selengei, Mbirikani, Kuku, and Rombo which collectively cover almost 2,000 square miles.

“The Greater Amboseli Ecosystem faces multiple challenges which are threatening the dispersal and movement of wild herbivores and undermining the long-term resilience of the ecosystem. One of the biggest challenges is habitat loss and degradation. The vast community-run group ranches adjacent to the park are undergoing privatisation and sub-division,” the report warns.

This article is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a programme of the charity Space for Giants and supported by the owner of ESI Media, which includes It aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original article here.

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