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Crisis looms as thirsty elephants invade homes; destroy water tanks in schools and churches

KNA  When darkness falls over Kishushe in Wundanyi sub-county, fear falls with it.

In the evenings, Kishushe and environs are transformed into ghost-trading centers. This has been the trend since the start of the dry season in March this year. Shops are shut. Men, long used to hanging around shops and village bars, rush home. Mothers quickly drag playing children from outside into the safety of their houses. When everyone is inside houses, a deathly hush flows over the land.

“They come at around 8.pm or sometimes earlier. Everyone must be at home before darkness comes,” explains Mzee James Mwaisaka, an elder of Ngongondinyi village in Wundanyi.

Ngongondinyi is one of the several villages placed under 7.pm lockdown by a rogue herd of elephants that come from Tsavo West National Park. The invasion has sent panic across the region as villagers share a uniform narrative of farms reduced to parched pieces of devastation by this ponderous menace that moves under the cover of darkness.

At around eight at night, they emerge from the dense bush. Sometimes there are three; sometimes seven. Other farmers speak of one hulking jumbo that moves silently; a shadow in the night. They have established a nocturnal pattern. They move through hundreds of farms in several villages with Kanyanga, Kinununyi, Ikanga, Mwakiremba, Mashashagu, Mbula and Kwa Afiti being the hardest hit.

“They have lost all fear for humans. You can’t chase them away so there is no need to risk your life by going out and chasing them,” says the elder.

A fortnight ago, the three-elephant herd invaded his one-acre land ripe with sorghum. By dawn, he only found a trashed farm. While shuffling around the ruined farm, the old man wears a bemused smile of a farmer who has grown accustomed to the agony of the Sisyphean cycle of planting and never harvesting.

When rains failed in March, he says he experienced that familiar angst that grips small-scale farmers in the region whenever a drought looms. The lack of food does not terrify them as much as what the drought portends.

“Drought does not bring hunger. It brings the elephants too. That is where our pain starts,” he explains.

His instincts were true. The herd came and has since become unwanted permanent guests in the region. This tale of loss and anguish is echoed by several farmers whose crops have suffered the same fate.

Mwashighadi Mwatela says unlike in the past where the elephants wreak havoc and leave, the current herd has acquired some form of permanence. Even after destroying cassava, pawpaw trees and sorghum, the jumbos show no sign of leaving.

“They have eaten everything yet they are still hanging around. They ought to leave,” he said.

More worrying is the baffling trajectory of the jumbos’ current destructive trend. Traditionally, elephants destroyed crops and fruit trees. Currently, they have turned to shredding water tanks exposing the residents to a water-shortage crisis.

To date, over 13 plastic water tanks have been ripped apart.  They belong to local schools, churches and community groups.

“They insert the snout inside the tank for a drink. If they can’t reach water, they pierce the tank with tusks and tear it apart,” he said.

Some farmers have ringed their water tanks with iron sheets to shield them from the jumbos. Others have called for construction of concrete tanks that might deter the marauding animals.

Ms. Mercy Wakio, an official with Sauti Ya Wanawake, a right’s lobby group, says schools are the worst hit. The invasion has forced institutions to adjust the reporting times to accommodate learners who must walk through overgrown paths in the elephant-infested bush.

“They report late and leave early. Most times, parents accompany them. No one wants to risk having to encounter elephants in the bush,” she said.

Some parents are hanging on to their children until they deem it safe to allow them attempt the perilous walk.

“Why risk my child’s life just for education? He can attend school later,” argues a parent who declined to be named because the school believes the learner is unwell.

Over 100 kilometers away in the hilly villages of Kasighau in Voi sub-county, the situation is no different. By seven in the evening, Rukanga center is deserted. The once vibrant mining center is now patronized by those who live there.

Newton Nyiro, an elder at Kitege village, says elephants come early to raid farms and destroy fruit trees.

“When sun goes down, we must be in our homes,” he said. He adds that Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) are overwhelmed because the elephants keep taking them round in circles.

Desperation has pushed farmers into devising crude ways of chasing away the jumbos. The most common method is dangling bits of iron sheets on fruit trees. When wind blows, the din of the colliding roof bits irritates the elephants and forces them to leave.

Nyiro says that innovation no longer works “That’s now a myth. The noise does not work. Even the powerful flashlights are not scaring them off,” he says.

The only item that works is the use of dynamites. The dangerous explosives are acquired from miners who are allowed to use them to blast rocky cliffs in the mining zones of Kasighau.

“Dynamite explosion startles them and sends them away back into the bush,” he said.

While most farmers are untrained on safety measures related to the use of dynamites, they are willing to risk their lives just to keep the elephants away. Even then, dynamites are hard to come by.

The farmers found an explanation about the baffling obstinacy of the elephants and their refusal to move away from human settlements areas. One theory says the elephants gravitate towards homes and farms because they are used to humans.

“These are elephants that have been introduced to the wild after living for years in orphanages. They are hand-fed and pampered at the orphanages until they become adults. Now they are finding it hard to feed themselves and are coming for easy meals,” says Mr. Jack Mwanyange, a farmer at Bughuta.

KWS is expected to install a 93-km electric fence that will cut past Kasighau to address this problem. Farmers say that while the fence is welcome, KWS should erect the fence on the right position for the boundary.

“KWS should not take advantage of our troubles to extend the park boundary into people’s farms,” he said.

During a County Development Implementation and Coordination Committee (CDICC) in May, Tsavo East Community Warden Zainabu Salim said KWS had won the boundary case against the local community.

“The court saw we have not encroached on anyone’s land and the project will continue,” she said.

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