Drought worsens human-wildlife conflict in Meru

Crops destroyed

Igembe North MP Julius Taitumu (in blue cap) together with KWS officials and some farmers inspect a maize farm that has been destroyed by elephants in Malaene village, Igembe North on January 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is mulling opening up an elephant corridor linking the Imenti forest and Northern Kenya amid rising cases of drought induced human-wildlife conflict in Meru.

For the last two months, farmers in Northern Meru have been grappling with an invasion by elephants that has left many counting losses.

According to the Meru National Park senior warden Kitavi Kaloki, more than 200 elephants had moved into Meru from Isiolo region, as pasture becomes hard to come by due to prolonged drought.

Last year, several elephants succumbed to drought pointing to the worsening situation for wildlife in the region.

KWS deputy director in charge of Meru, Zainab Salim said due to climate change, setting aside a wildlife corridor would offer a lasting solution.

Wild animals have had to compete for water and pasture with cattle as herders invaded the protected areas during the dry season.

Speaking at Athwana in Tigania West, where more than 5,000 farmers have been affected, Ms Salim said there was a need for land owners to give up portions of their land for the corridor.

“From research, we are aware that this area is a wildlife corridor. If an elephant uses a route for 10 years, it forms part of its migratory route for generations. We will consult experts and if the corridor is established, it should be demarcated and set aside in the land adjudication process,” Ms Salim said.

According to the ministry of environment report on wildlife migratory corridors and dispersal areas published in 2017, Isiolo – Buffalo Springs-Isiolo-Imenti is listed as a critical wildlife corridor in the greater Ewaso ecosystem.

Meru County Commissioner Fred Ndunga said they would study the wildlife dispersal areas and corridor maps to establish where land can be set aside for elephants.

“If your land is on the elephant corridor, you have to set it aside,” Mr Ndunga said.

However, residents protested the proposal saying they would not surrender portions of their land for a wildlife corridor.

“Since I was born, elephants have been passing by without conflict. We have never prevented the elephants from proceeding to the forest. We cannot give out our land for a corridor,” Athwana MCA Jim Muchui said.

Tigania West MP John Mutunga said there was no need for establishing a corridor since residents have coexisted with migrating animals for ages.

The Wildlife migratory corridors and dispersal areas report states there is need to include wildlife corridors in development and spatial planning.

It also proposes establishment of community wildlife conservancies as well as artificial pathways to ease animal movement amid growing human settlement and infrastructural development.

Meru County hosts the first elephant corridor that includes an underpass on the Meru-Nanyuki road linking northern Kenya conservancies to Mt Kenya forest.

The Mt Kenya Elephant Corridor is a 28-kilometer passage that was established after Kisima Farm set aside 272 ha of land. 

Meanwhile, the Senate Deputy Speaker Kathuri Murungi has called on KWS to urgently recruit rangers to strengthen the state corporation’s workforce to effectively deal with increased human-wildlife conflict.

He wondered why KWS had not recruited since 2015 yet the government had set aside money for the exercise for the following year.

Speaking at KWS offices in Meru, Mr Murungi who is also the county senator protested increased cases of marauding elephants raiding people’s farms, destroying thriving crops in dozens of acres.

He demanded that more rangers be sent to the county to drive away the over 200 elephants that have invaded the area, to prevent further destruction of crops and possible injury to residents.

The invasions have also left a young man fighting for his life after being stamped by elephants in Tigania East Sub County.

However, KWS deputy director in charge of Meru, Zainab Salim said they could not relocate rangers to Meru region, as they were experiencing staff shortage.

 “Our hand as a corporation is short because of inadequate personnel since the last recruitment was done in 2015 and it is affecting the number of people and the service delivery,” she said.

Runaway poaching

In 2014, KWS hurriedly recruited 566 rangers by shortening their training period from six months to address runaway poaching menace during the period.

Ms Zainab said a lasting solution would be to establish if farmers were cultivating crops along an elephant corridor, so that it can be fenced off to end the invasions.

Mr Murungi agreed with the proposal, but called on the government to factor in compensation for the farmers who will be driven out of their land in the said corridor.

Ms Zainab at the same time warned residents to be wary of fraudsters who were selling fake compensation letters in the affected areas.

Mr Murungi gave out Sh100,000 to facilitate speedy tracing of the affected farmers so that they could fill out the forms.

The KWS official also encouraged farmers to individually seek compensation without going through lawyers to enable them receive the whole compensation money.

Last week, Meru County Commissioner Fred Ndunga said police officers and national police reservists would be deployed to provide reinforcement to the KWS rangers.

Meanwhile, more than 400 residents in Meru County are demanding Sh200 million from KWS as compensation for destruction of their crops and property.

The backlog of claims date as far back as 2015 with people whose crops were destroyed by elephants mainly in areas that border forests in Imenti North, Tigania East, Tigania West, Igembe Central and Igembe North sub counties, Imenti North MP Rahim Dawood said.

This week, more than 200 marauding elephants invaded parts of Igembe North and Tigania, wreaking havoc on farms and destroying crops.

Mr Dawood said the wildlife agency had delayed compensating those affected to the extent that residents had lost faith in the government.

“We are forced to talk to our people nicely because they are impatient. They tell us if we don’t push for compensation they will harm the animals and we don’t want this to happen so KWS should fast track the payment,” Mr Dawood said in an interview in Meru.

Speaking when Mr Murungi and Mr Ndunga toured parts of Igembe North to assess damage on food crops by elephants, farmers said they had incurred huge losses after elephants invaded their farms.

Mr Johana Mueti, a farmer at Nginyo village in Igembe North said his sorghum and maize crops on a five-acre piece of land worth over Sh300,000 had been destroyed in a recent invasion by elephants.

Mr Murungi, the Meru Senator said the government would seek a lasting solution by fencing off the forests.

He told affected residents to be patient and assured they would be compensated, adding that the government would invest more resources by equipping KWS rangers so that they are able to control movement of wild animals.

Mr Ndunga told residents to follow proper procedures in filling compensation forms and warned those circulating fake documents will be dealt with according to the law.

“Some of you have filled fake forms obtained from people claiming to be representatives of KWS and paid Sh500 for the service. You should know that those are conmen and the law will catch up with them,” Mr Ndunga said.

The KWS however said some of the claims were not genuine, with county director Ms Zainab saying some claims were grossly exaggerated.

“For instance, some people claimed that crops in their entire farms were destroyed but when we send agriculture officers they established that only sections were damaged. This means that these claims will not be compensated until the dispute is settled,” Ms Zainab said.

The wildlife agency has also accused farmers of invading wildlife corridors, igniting the current human wildlife conflicts.

Additional Reporting By Gitonga Marete