The agony of Lolldaiga fire victims in Laikipia

Laikipia grave

Ms Teresiah Wanjiri,  a widow, next to the grave of her late husband Leonard Kihato who died in August after complaining of chest pains. Locals have sued British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK) over the dangerous smoke from a fire that has adversely affected locals and livestock health.

Photo credit: Mwangi Ndirangu I Nation Media Group

Residents bordering the Lolldaiga Conservancy in Laikipia County where British soldiers conduct military exercises are suffering as they anxiously await the outcome of a compensation suit that arose from a fire sparked by a drill early last year.

While the hunger stalking them could largely be attributed to climate change, they blame the activities of soldiers under the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk), who have camps in a section of the 49,000-acre ranch, for loss of livelihoods and deteriorating health.

The effects of the fire that broke out during routine training in March 2021 continue to be felt 20 months later. Deaths of humans and livestock, miscarriages and eyesight problems have been attributed to dangerous chemicals and explosives.

It is not clear what caused the fire, which lasted nearly three weeks, destroying more than 10,000 acres of vegetation. But the affected community and environmental lobby group African Centre for Corrective and Preventive Action, which sued Batuk, claimed it resulted from an explosive chemical used in the exercises.

Batuk officials have admitted that they cautiously use white phosphorus during their training but clarified that it is used in restricted places, away from residential areas and with all the required safety standards in place.

Used for night illumination during training, the chemical can cause fire to rain down on targets, inflicting indiscriminate damage. International laws require that it should not be used in areas occupied by civilians.

“We do train with it when conditions allow. If it is very dry and windy, we do not use it because it can start a fire. In terms of its environmental impact, it is no different from other high explosives used by other militaries across the world,” Batuk’s community and media liaison officer, Major Adrian Weale, told a news briefing recently.

In the villages of Muramati, Mwireri, and Mugumo in Daiga division, locals told the Nation how their lives changed for the worse following the fire.

“We have never seen such heavy smoke before. It was coloured and choking and the nearby villages witnessed darkness during daytime,” said Mr Nahashon Kana, a resident of Muramati and one of the petitioners in the compensation suit.

Mr Kana explained that wild animals, and notably elephants from the Lolldaiga Conservancy, destroyed the electric fence to escape when the fire broke out. Pleas by villagers to the conservancy’s managers to have it repaired have not been heeded.

Elephants now move in and out of the previously protected area and have killed one person and destroyed crops and fences, forcing villagers to remain indoors at night for fear of attacks.

Nahashon Kana

Mr Nahashon Kana from Muramati village, Laikipia East Sub-County shows part of the destroyed fence. Elephants from the nearby Lolldaiga Conservancy have been wreaking havoc in the villages.

Photo credit: Mwangi Ndirangu I Nation Media Group

“Most people need relief food but it appears the government and relief agencies have forgotten them,” Mr Kana said. 

“The marauding elephants have greatly contributed to food insecurity because they destroy even small kitchen gardens and any water source they come across, including water tanks.”

Land remains bare here, even during this November planting season, as the area remains dry. The only green vegetation consists of acacia trees, sisal, kei apple fences, which all bear the signs of recent encounters with foraging elephants.

The heavy smoke that permeated villages for days, blown by strong howling winds, was said to cause adverse health effects like serious eyesight problems and miscarriages in humans and livestock. Evidence from government medics and veterinary officers was included in the documents presented in court.

Lawyer Kelvin Kubai told the court in a recent hearing that some 30 petitioners had died, most of them from the hazardous effects of the smoke, calling for quick resolution of the matter, which is now before the Inter-Governmental Liaison Committee. The panel comprises representatives from the British and Kenya governments.

Lolldaiga Conservancy

Pastor Duncan Kariuki stands next to a hide of his grade cow which died following the adverse effects of a smoke after a fire broke out at Lolldaiga Conservancy in Laikipia County.

Photo credit: Mwangi Ndirangu I Nation Media Group

Ms Teresiah Wajiru, from Muramati village, says her husband Leonard Kihato died on August 8 after a short illness though he had no previous history of life-threatening illnesses.

“My husband complained of chest pains and we took him to Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital. Medics said he was suffering from pneumonia and he passed on two days later,” the widow said, pointing at his grave.

At another homestead, Ms Theresa Gathoni is attending to his sickly brother, Mr Peter Waweru, who has been complaining of chest pains.

“My brother was a healthy man who could work and earn money for himself. But for the better part of this year, he has been in and out of hospital and now spends most of the day sleeping due to deteriorating health,” Ms Gathoni said.

Ms Agnes Kariuki, whose homestead lies next to the boundary of the Lolldaiga Conservancy, told the Nation that her family was hit hard by the effects of the smoke due to its proximity to the wildlife sanctuary.

“I was hospitalised for a week with my two-year-old son. He suffered from breathing difficulties, while my eyes were affected and I am undergoing a surgery,” Ms Kariuki said. 

“Our dairy cow worth Sh200,000 contracted a strange disease and died. An unknown wild animal recently raided our goat pen and mauled four of them.”

Nearly every homestead visited by the Nation claimed to have been affected by the fire one way or another – either sickness attributed to the fire that affected humans and livestock or attacks on domestic animals by beasts from the private conservancy.

As he pursues the suit to have 1,500 claimants compensated, lawyer Kubai has expressed concern over environmental safety for the people living next to the Batuk training grounds. He wants the Kenya government to impose strict conditions before the military training agreement is renewed.

“The Kenyan government should come up with a policy where these military training sessions are not conducted in wildlife conservancies or next to residential areas but in unoccupied private lands,” Mr Kubai said. 

“As long as the soldiers continue to use dangerous chemicals during training, some of which remains in the soil for years, adverse health and environmental impacts will continue to be felt in the coming years.”


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