In Kwale County, adjacent to Shimba Hills National Reserve, farmers have been coexisting with wildlife for years: animals such as baboons and elephants that cannot understand the human construct of fences and happen to enjoy eating many of the same crops we do. Presented with once carefully cultivated fields now trampled and eaten by elephants, some farmers began to retaliate, with no way to keep the elephants out and few options to compensate for the loss of livelihood brought about by the destruction of their crops. For the elephants, simply roaming the land on which they’ve had free rein for generations, this was a further pressure to add to the habitat loss and poaching already affecting their species. With a conflict this complex, it is hard to know where to begin finding a solution that benefits both humans and wildlife, without detracting disproportionately from either. Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary is one such initiative. If there’s one thing elephants provide a lot of, it’s dung, and the founders of the project turned this to their advantage, creating a business with its roots in this free and abundant resource. When cleaned and processed, elephant dung can be made into paper products, which are sold to visitors in the project’s shop. Not only this, but visitors can also learn about – and have a good chance of seeing – the elephants themselves, guided by the sanctuary’s rangers. During our visit, we spoke to Fatuma Hasira, one of the project’s managers, who told us that the money raised through the sale of the paper products is of huge benefit to the community, and that people now enjoy watching the elephants browsing in the distance as they pass through.
Another project making the most of elephant dung is the Pasha Self Help Group, led by John Monroe Kioka, who used knowledge gained while travelling the world during his career to help his community overcome the challenges of living and farming next to Shimba Hills’ large population of elephants, the densest in Kenya. On returning to his farm at retirement, John realised he was unable to cultivate most of his land because the crops would be destroyed overnight by elephants and baboons. This issue was far-reaching, and the community was struggling to maintain a livelihood. Remembering farmers in India using chillies to protect their crops from elephants, John hit upon the idea of combining chillies and tobacco leaves with elephant dung to create a potent, slow-burning mixture whose acrid smoke proves extremely effective in keeping elephants at bay. The baboons, trickier to deter, are now dissuaded from entering the fields when farmers spray their crops with water infused with chillies. Entrepreneurial in spirit, John continued to look for ways to give the elephants a value beyond the intrinsic, thus further safeguarding their future despite their proximity to humans around Shimba Hills. Noticing that the mudfish on his farm attacked elephant dung that fell into their pond by chance with ferocious greed, he began deliberately to use it as fish food – combined with tiny dried fish, it forms a cheap, chemical-free alternative to the commercial fish food brands available before. The Pasha Self Help Group has saved enough money from the sale of their undamaged crops to be able to dig fish ponds; with a bit more support, they’ll be able to line them and fill them with water, and will soon be able to add tilapia to the products they have available to eat and sell. John also aims to afford a pelleting machine so that they can start making the elephant dung and fish combination into a marketable form and generate income that way too.
Living with wildlife is fraught with challenges, and often threatens human lives as well as livelihoods. As population increases and pressures on land grow, it is certainly not a problem that is going to go away, and there is no simple, cure-all solution. It can seem an insurmountable problem, but is not one that can be ignored, and the reason for this is summed up best by John himself:
“Wildlife has a right to live, just as you have a right to live. Elephants don’t have the tools to resolve human wildlife conflict, but we do, so we must use them”.
To find out more about the initiatives above, go to: http://blogs.wwf.org.uk/blog/author/ekimaru/