LAIKIPIA, Kenya, Jun 25 – Machete in hand, Kenyan farmer Paul Njoroge points at the broken branches and giant footprints where elephants trampled his bananas, maize, potatoes and sugar cane.
“We don’t hate the elephants, but their activities are making us poor,” said the 53-year old farmer, surveying his lush green fields, a five-hectare (12-acre) plot on the slopes of the Laikipia highlands in central Kenya.
“I have this big farm but yet sometimes I have to go for food handouts from the government.”
While poachers slaughter thousands of elephants across Africa each year, competition between elephants and people over land is a far bigger problem in the long run, conservationists say.
To help combat that, a 163-kilometre (100-mile) electric fence is being erected to provide a separation zone between farmland and elephant migration routes.
Max Graham, from the Space for Giants conservation group leading the fence construction, believes it will improve safety for people and crops, protect the endangered animals from poachers, and ease pressure on grassland from farmers who sneak in livestock illegally to graze in areas reserved for wildlife.
– Man versus elephant ‘frontline’ –
“This is the frontline separating smallholder agriculture from elephant conservation,” Graham said.
“While the elephant poaching crisis is a massive emergency problem, human-elephant conflict over the long term is going to be the single biggest issue for elephant conservation in Africa.”
Laikipia, a 10,000 square kilometre (3,800 square mile) rangeland at the base of snowcapped Mount Kenya, some 200 kilometres (110 miles) north of the capital Nairobi, has the second-largest density of wildlife in Kenya after the world-famous Maasai Mara reserve.
The vast plateau is home to some 6,300 elephants — as well as farmers trying to earn a living from the same lands. Conservationists record as many as 10 incidents of human-elephant conflict a day.
Conservationists argue that protecting the elephants will also help boost the tourist industry, which in this area employs thousands of Kenyans and brings in some $20 million (18 million euros) in revenue a year.
The $870,000 (775,000 euro) fence, funded by cash raised during a recent summit meeting in April to stem ivory poaching, is not cheap.
But it is hoped it will help end the more than $1 million (887,000 euros) worth of crops damaged by elephants every year.
Njoroge’s losses alone totalled more than $4,000 (3,500 euros) over the past year.
– Compensation funds stretched –