The Other Reason Africa’s Elephants Are Dying
Kenya is trying its best to deter illegal poachers, but revenge killings by farmers and herdsmen are often the bigger problem.
NEAR AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — When he was a young Maasai warrior in the 1980s, Noah Nakutit killed elephants and a lion to prove his manhood. Slaying the feared animals with a spear was not only a centuries-old rite of passage for Maasai warriors back then; it was also entertainment. Nakutit recalls killing a lion in Amboseli, a 150-square-mile national park in southern Kenya, “for fun” as recently as 1990.
Now Nakutit and other Maasai elders near Amboseli do their best to dissuade the next generation of warriors from keeping up the lethal tradition. Wildlife-related tourism has given them a stake in the animals’ survival: A luxury eco-lodge now leases Maasai land and, with a portion of its tourist fees, has paid for new roads, started a school, and funded scholarships for high school and university. “I have already changed my attitude,” Nakutit says. “We see that wild animals have some benefit for us.”
But the end of ceremonial killings in the area by men like Nakutit has not halted the eradication of the region’s prized megafauna. That’s because they represent only a small part of the underlying problem: the growing conflict between humans and wildlife over Kenya’s increasingly crowded land.
Last month, the Kenyan government torched more than 100 metric tons of ivory, much of it seized from traffickers, in an effort to deter illegal poaching. But in Amboseli — as in other parts of Kenya, such as the famed Maasai Mara national reserve — farmers and herders trying to protect their livelihoods kill or injure more wildlife each year than criminal poachers.
Maasai warriors rarely seek out animals anymore. But in their roles as farmers and herders, which is how most Massai make their living, they are finding conflict increasingly difficult to avoid. As new roads, settlements, and agricultural projects encroach on their habitat, wild animals inevitably wander into farms and grazing areas.
Locals often respond by killing the animals that raid their crops and eat their livestock. They also retaliate when the animals commit even greater transgressions.
In March, elephants killed four people near Amboseli, including a 4-year-old boy who was walking home from school and a 9-year-old herding cattle. In retaliation, locals killed at least one elephant and speared several others, some of which had not been involved in the deadly incidents. The number of retaliatory killings near Amboseli has spiked in recent years, from one or two in 2011 to as many as 30 last year, according to the Kenya-based African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). By contrast, the rate of ivory poaching has dropped precipitously.
The rapid escalation of human-wildlife conflict threatens both the tourism industry and the local communities that have come to rely on it. When business is good at Satao Elerai, the luxury eco-lodge that leases the land of Nakutit and other Maasai, it contributes around $100,000 per year from tourist fees to the tribe’s community trust, which pays for education and other community development initiatives. Before it set up shop in 2005, practically no children went to school in this Maasai community of about 800. This year, 80 children are enrolled at the new private primary school funded by Satao Elerai.
For now, the lodge’s sweeping view of acacia-dotted grasslands offers a chance to see giraffes, elephants, lions, and eland, among other exotic wildlife. Tourists flock from around the world to ogle them — making Satao Elerai’s investment in the Maasai community possible. But if angry farmers and herdsmen keep killing off the main attraction, it’s only a matter of time before the tourism industry dries up.
“If human-wildlife conflict is not mitigated, it will lead to whatever species being eradicated sooner or later,” said Richard Bonham, co-founder of the Kenya-based Big Life Foundation, which aims to protect wildlife in East Africa. “Any tourism operation that relies on wildlife that creates conflict will end up with no product.”
There is no easy solution for human-wildlife conflict, but experts say that helping local communities reap the benefits of conservation is a critical starting point. “If conservation supports the community, then the community will support conservation,” said Nick Brandt, the other co-founder of Big Life Foundation.
Nakutit and his fellow Maasai warriors’ transformation from big-game hunters to conservation advocates is a case in point. It wasn’t until they saw that wildlife preservation brought tangible benefits to their communities that they were willing to abandon the age-old tradition of lion hunting.
Big Life Foundation has provided hundreds of scholarships for Maasai youth. The organization also pioneered an innovative approach to discouraging lion hunting; in 2012 and 2014, it organized so-called “Maasai Olympics,” in which young warriors competed in spear- and club-throwing contests, foot races, and jumping competitions. They won cash prizes, valuable bulls, and even a trip to compete in the New York City Marathon — all forms of validation that didn’t involve killing lions. Fundraising is currently underway for the 2016 Maasai Olympics.
Such initiatives have had impressive results. Last year, there were no Maasai ceremonial lion killings. Meanwhile, the lion population in the Amboseli region has rebounded from a low of 10 in 2009 to 135 today.
In order to forestall retaliation, Big Life has also started a program to compensate locals when lions or other wildlife kill their livestock. As a result, incidents of deadly retaliation against lions have dropped from a high of more than 40 in 2006 to 10 in 2015, according to AWF.
“We will not win in conservation without local help and buy-in. Schools, sports, and revenue from tourism help communities link these benefits with protection of wildlife,” said Noah Sitati, a program officer at AWF. “Communities can decide to protect or kill wildlife depending on whether they find it more of a burden than benefit to live with them. If they find benefits, they may choose to give land for conservation or help to tackle poaching.”
Other successful programs aim to involve locals directly in conservation. For example, Big Life, AWF, and other conservation groups in the region have hired more than 300 unarmed Maasai farmers and herdsmen as wildlife rangers in recent years. These Maasai rangers operate outside of national parks, complementing the government’s Kenya Wildlife Service, whose presence is mostly inside national parks. (Eighty percent of the wildlife in Amboseli regularly roam outside the park.) Maasai rangers — equipped with jeeps, GPS, and cameras — are a valuable resource to combat poaching when they do.
“Maasai know how to walk in the bush and to walk with animals,” Maasai ranger Sitonik Kireyain says. “You can meet a very young kid when he’s walking with cows and he’s walking with animals. They know how to do it.”
Conservationists acknowledge that fostering goodwill and providing educational assistance only goes so far. Electric fences are one possible long-term solution to keep wildlife and people safe, though they are currently too expensive for many farmers and herdsmen to build and maintain. As long as humans continue to encroach on the natural habitat of lions, elephants, and other potentially dangerous animals, human-wildlife conflict will be a perennial problem to mitigate — not just in Amboseli but across much of Africa.
The future of wildlife “will depend on how we can reconcile the competition between humans and animals for space and resources,” Big Life said in a recent statement. “Otherwise, it is a battle that wildlife will surely lose.”
Image credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images