Communities and elephants live in close proximity around Kenya’s highest peak, Mount Kenya. Much work is put into protecting both people and wildlife from conflict including fencing, gates and research.
The Mount Kenya Trust (MKT) works with local people, government agencies and development partners for the conservation of the unique natural resources of Africa’s second-highest mountain. The Trust has been working around the mountain for over 20 years on a range of projects including:
- Forest restoration: Large scale reforestation of indigenous trees species at many sites, with over 1.5 million trees planted, as well as woodlots, community tree nurseries and energy saving cookstoves for homes and schools;
- Wildlife conservation: Four anti-poaching teams based around the mountain, education projects, human-wildlife conflict mitigation, wildlife research, one-way elephant gates and the Mt Kenya Elephant Corridor that maintains landscape connectivity;
- Water management: rainwater capture and storage, and research into over-extraction of rivers and water sources;
- Community development: Environmental education, community health projects, income generating activities, agroforestry and sustainable farming methods.
Human-elephant conflict is one of the greatest challenges to wildlife management today and is defined by the IUCN/SSC African Specialist Group as ‘any human-elephant interaction, which results in negative effects on human-social, economic or cultural life, on elephant conservation or on the environment’.
Small scale agriculture, along with large scale land conversion, are pressurising wildlife habitat, diminishing the balance of coexistence and threatening lives of both humans and wildlife. These issues are more pronounced in highland areas such as Mount Kenya, where plentiful rain and rich soils mean agricultural activities are intense. Combined with intrusion into elephant protected habitat through grazing, charcoal burning, farming, and road construction, more people are moving into the areas where wildlife were once free to roam.
Animals also move in and out of human settlement and range from elephant and buffalo to smaller mammals such as primates, porcupine, hyena and leopard. Elephants are, however, considered the most problematic.
Conflicts are divided into two groups: direct or indirect. Human deaths or injuries, killing of livestock or wildlife, destruction of property such as crops, spread of disease, deforestation and competition for water, grass, salt licks are known as direct conflicts. Indirect conflict is a disruption of social-economic activities such as school attendance, lack of sleep, noise, insecurity or fear.
Ways to keep humans and elephants safely apart is critical for the future of conservation in Africa. Surveys carried out in 2016 and 2020 shows high elephant densities on Mt Kenya and the Aberdares (1.28 and 2.03 per square km retrospectively). These results translate to approximately 2,600 elephants on Mt Kenya and 3,570 on the Aberdares. Even though elephants are more or less confined to these areas due to growing settlements, elephants are migratory creatures that do not see boundaries.
MKT works with many partners to help communities under strain from elephants and to secure and protect habitat for everyone living in the region. Various efforts to mitigate the HEC on Mount Kenya include ranger teams to reduce human interference in the forest, barriers such as fencing to prevent wildlife entering farms, re-establishment of wildlife corridors and one way elephant gates.
The Horse Patrol Team, operational since 2012 and supported by the International Elephant Foundation, was set up to enhance the capacity of law enforcement personnel to decrease the level of poaching (especially elephants) and other illegal activities mainly but not limited to the north western section of Mount Kenya.
Along with law enforcement, the short-term objectives are to decrease the prevalence of illegal activity, in particular elephant and bush meat poaching in the northern areas of Mt Kenya National Reserve and to work collaboratively with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to extend the area of surveillance. The team also increase awareness and conservation education within the communities living in and around Mt Kenya Park. The HPT is one of the few mounted community ranger teams in Kenya.
Electric fencing is an excellent long-term solution to HEC, as long as the fence is well maintained, and vandalism is kept at bay. In the past two decades, MKT installed 85 kilometres of temporary fence line (Naro Moru, Warazo, Kibirichia, Weru and Ontulili) and assisted with the building and repair of several other community fences. These are all managed by the local community, with technical and equipment support from MKT and the KWS.
In addition, the Mount Kenya Comprehensive Fence Project was launched in 2012. This eight-strand wildlife proof fence will encircle the 2,700 square kilometres of habitat and will be approximately 450 kilometres in length. The fence is being built by members of the forest adjacent communities under the supervision of a technical team from KWS, in partnership with Rhino Ark.
However restricting movements, isolation, inbreeding, habitat destruction, overgrazing, and increased human activities at the forest edge are some of the worries that a fenced ecosystem can bring. MKT is dealing with these issues by providing corridors so elephants can use old migration routes and providing gates where wildlife can enter the protected areas. This is coupled with work on community education and engagement to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Corridors & Gates
Whilst fences do protect people, they cut off historic elephant migration routes. As the largest mammal biomass, elephants structure their habitat. When isolated, elephants cannot sustain their year-round needs and will repeatedly destroy fences to get out. Maintaining corridors from highlands to the lowlands is therefore vitally important.
In the early 2000’s, elephant travel routes for Mt Kenya were developed that suggested three places in Northern Mt Kenya were used by elephants to migrate to the lowlands (Vanleeuwe, 2005).
One route became a protected fenced corridor, known as the ‘Mt Kenya elephant corridor’ traversing Marania and Kisima farms to Ngare Ndare forest and beyond. In 2018, two automated elephant one-way gates were established in the Imenti region (northeast Mt Kenya) to reduce HEC and fence breaking by annually migrating elephants using a historic route that comes from Samburu and Shaba. Other options being explored include corridors through rivers and riparian lands.
Before the establishment of the corridor the community members were spending long hours in the cold to guard their crops, suffering long waking hours, illness, food insecurity and sometimes death or injury by the elephants.
The corridor, as initially envisaged, has drastically reduced HEC in the area and increased food security. In addition, it has provided protection for a significant population of the African Elephant. This ensures increased genetic diversity, access to a range of necessary nutritional requirements and freedom of movement within natural migration zones.
Humphrey Munene, MKT Field Coordinator.
Elephants have been known to ‘wait’ at gates until they are allowed to move through. With this concept in mind, two gates with sensors were installed in the Imenti region of Mt Kenya. Never before tried or tested, the system is operated by an ‘eye in the sky’ trigger sensor. When something taller than human (such as an elephant) walks past the censor, the double gates are triggered to open into the forest. If an elephant tries to pass back through, the gates remain closed.
This allows elephant that are outside of the fenced area to enter the forest without destroying fence lines or damage property. Crop-raiding elephants are also prevented from grazing farmlands at night then returning to the safe cover of the forest in the day time.
In late 2018, the first bull elephants moved through and now families too! This indicates that more elephants feel safe to use the gate with their young. Mount Kenya Trust, Rhino Ark jointly managed the project with funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Elephant density for Mt Kenya has remained stable between 2016 and 2020. Poaching was not encountered in the most recent 2020 survey as a significant threat and HEC around the Imenti has quasi-halted due to the boundary fence and the successful one-way gate.
However, the most important results of the 2020 survey are that illegal threats increased by 51% per cent since 2016. There may well be a link between the larger spread of elephants and larger spread of illegal activities in 2020 (compared to 2016). Illegal logging multiplied 3.5 fold and livestock numbers increased by 75 per cent. Meat poaching was found to be more spread and in the same areas where logging increased.
Elephant distribution was more spread than in the same season in 2016 which may indicate some competition for grazing with livestock. Livestock negatively affects the mountains carrying capacity to sustain its wildlife grazers.