As human populations grow in Africa and more land is needed to farm, people and wildlife live ever closer together. JOAN NTHIGA, our Media & Communications Manager recently visited farmers in Kenya to see how Space for Giants works to lessen the conflicts that then arise.
Samson Elimlim has been farming for the last four years. He moved to the small Kenyan town of Ngorare in the central Laikipia county to be closer to his dad who has been living here for the past 10 years and who also farms a variety of crops including maize and beans.
Originally from a predominantly pastoral community that criss-crossed the Laikipian landscape with livestock, both Samson and his father moved to Ngorare to settle down with their families hoping to make better income from farming crops.
Samuel Mwangi is also a farmer in the small town of Pesi close to Ngorare. Together with his wife Miriam, Samuel has been growing onions, tomatoes, beans and potatoes, selling the produce to brokers who serve markets up to 300 km away.
Listening to the two farmers talk, you would think they live in completely different parts of the country. On one hand, Samson would struggle to grow his crop to a successful harvest while Samuel and Miriam celebrated the success of their farming business, even planning to invest in other cash crops as well as acquire more farming land.
The common problem they faced was Human-Elephant Conflict, the term for what happens when elephants break into farmers’ fields to eat nutritious crops, and farmers retaliate to try to scare them away. In the process, people and elephants are harmed or even killed, and property is damaged.
Space for Giants calculates that Human-Elephant Conflict is a greater threat to the survival of Africa’s elephants than poaching. In this area of Kenya, it kills significantly more elephants than poaching.
The 10,000 sq km Laikipia Plateau and the neighbouring Samburu area are home to the second-largest density of wildlife in Kenya after the Masai Mara, with the country’s second-largest population of elephants after Tsavo: more than 6,300 individuals. Laikipia is also an area with a fast-expanding economy driven by increasing acreage given over to farming.
This means the area has perhaps the worst Human-Elephant Conflict in Kenya: a study counted more than 6,700 separate incidents in two years – almost ten every day – that cost smallholder farmers more than $1 million in destroyed crops.
What makes for the stark difference in fortune today Samson on the one hand, and Samuel and Miriam on the other, is a three-foot-high 7,000-volt fence. Samuel’s land lies behind the fence; Samson’s does not, at least for the moment.
Space for Giants pioneered this design of barrier that has been found to be the most effective at deterring elephants from crossing from the large tracts of wildlife habitat that borders the two farms. When elephants stop raiding fields, farmers’ livelihoods are secured, and elephants are therefore safer.
“Before the fence was built, we would sleep very few hours in the night if at all,” says Samuel. “We would work with our neighbours in chasing elephants away from our farms. Sometimes this would go on for the entire night because at times large herds of elephants would invade our farms.
“We could not even think of planting more food because every time we had hopes of having a good harvest, the elephants would raid and we would lose almost everything!”
Samuel estimates that he would lose almost three-quarters of his entire harvest in one single raid.
But with the section of the fence that runs past his farm now complete, he and his wife Miriam have had three seasons of successful harvests and are now among the bigger producers of potatoes and onions in the area.
The fence, which now extends through 100km of West Laikipia was constructed by Space for Giants with funds from the Leopardess Foundation, one of our most consistent supporters in this work, the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), and the Laikipia County Government. At the end of 2018, the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service also committed their support to the ongoing project. So far it has protected 1.7 million acres of conservation area and 2 million acres of farmland.
“I never imagined that it could be like this,” says Miriam. “The fact that we can grow our crops and see them get to market is just amazing. We now also employ four and sometimes five more people to work on the farm who can support their families from the income they receive and that makes me very happy.”.
Even though Samson lives close to Miriam and Samuel he would still experience almost daily raids by elephants as the harvesting season drew closer. The section of the West Laikipia Fence that would pass his farm, still had yet to reach him.
“It takes me slightly over three months to plant my tomatoes. I should be getting about 500,000 Kenyan shillings ($5,000) every harvest but at best I get half or less because the elephants destroy or eat the rest. It’s very painful indeed,” says Samson.
“But I have great hopes that my situation will change. I have seen how my neighbours’ lives have improved for the better because of this fence and I look forward to the day when my farming business can reach its potential without the threat of invasions. Space for Giants and the Laikipia County Government visit with us regularly to let us know of the progress and I am so happy my fate is set to change very soon.”
The Laikipia County Government continues to add to the fence line that is now in Ngorare and has finally reached Samson’s farm. As he prepares his land for the next planting season, he joins his fellow farmers with renewed hope that majority of his produce will make it to market this time around.