We protect communities through our immediate response to conflict, daily monitoring of collared elephants and applied research. This approach protects communities from threats and prevents conflict to promote co-existence.
Human-wildlife conflict (HWC) is a broad term used to describe the many different negative interactions experienced by both people and wildlife as a result of living in proximity to one another. For elephants in the Maasai Mara, conflict usually manifests as crop-raiding and infrastructure damage and, in extreme cases, also includes human threat, injury and death. Human-elephant conflict (HEC) poses a significant challenge to conservation and is a problem we believe will get worse as we see human population and agricultural expansion along the human-wildlife interface.
“From 2012 to 2015, we were reacting to poaching and poachers killing elephants for ivory. In 2016 we saw the next biggest threat to elephants was conflict. When human and elephants meet, it’s a war of space and everyone is trying to use it.” Marc Goss, MEP CEO
Outside of protected land, individual Maasai landowners have parcels of land, which range in sizes of 20 to 200 acres. This land is often used to grow maize, tomatoes or for grazing large herds of cattle; it’s also often fenced, which fragments the ecosystem, and blocks key wildlife migration routes (corridors). Elephants are known to enjoy maize, sorghum, and other crops and when elephants encounter farms, the temptation to consume a large number of calories in a small space is almost too much. They can eat a farmer’s entire field of crops in one night, thus destroying his livelihood and can also cause damage when they enter settlement areas, which can occur when they get caught in fencing or during migratory movements. Expanding agriculture in the ecosystem is thought to be driving conflict levels higher. Since 2016, MEP has recorded a 268% increase in crop damage incidents by elephants (45 in 2016, 121 in 2019). Overall, conflict rose from 91 total events in 2016 to 181 in 2019. In the same time period, elephant deaths from conflict have outpaced those from poaching.
Controlling conflict is difficult as elephants are very smart and use different tactics to raid crops while avoiding mitigations from farmers and wildlife rangers.
In this animation we see that three collared elephants (Ivy, Fred, and Kegol) all wait until night to raid crops, so they are difficult to detect. They are so quiet that even Ivy and her family group of nine are almost impossible to find at night. Elephants have also been observed using staging areas to raid. These forest patches provide safe refuge for resting during the day, while allowing them to stay close to crops. From the animation, we see them using two small patches that are located less than 2 km from the farms. Individual elephants also appear to have different proclivities for raiding. While some like Ivy are “cropaholics”, others will only raid occasionally or not at all. Discovering why some elephants crop raid and others do not is one of the questions the Mara Elephant Project Research Department is asking.
Over the last three years in the Maasai Mara, as the number of elephants killed as a result of poaching has declined, conflict related deaths are on the rise. In 2010, only two elephants were killed as a result of HEC, in 2016 this number had increased to 14 and hasn’t dropped much into 2019, with 12 deaths reported related to HEC.
Farmers and communities who have damage to either their fields, fences or livestock often retaliate by shooting arrows or throwing spears at elephants to move them out of their land. When arrows and spears are used by communities to move elephants out of farms, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Mara Mobile Vet Unit is called in and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Vet Dr. Limo performs surgery. In this event, MEP rangers assist with elephant treatments when the situation arises; however, sometimes it’s too late.
That’s why it’s crucial to have both a short term and long-term solution for conflict. Collecting long-term data on elephant crop raiding behaviors will help inform how MEP, KWS and other organizations can respond to conflict in both the short term with mitigations, and the long-term with landscape planning. In the short term, MEP works alongside farmers to mitigate conflicts as they occur with our boots on the ground ranger units and in partnership with KWS. MEP has developed a toolkit of best practices for mitigating human-elephant conflict. We deploy ranger teams to high human-elephant conflict areas, and they are tasked with preventing crop raids and moving elephants out of farms using vehicles, bright lights and flashbangs. If those methods don’t work, then the Karen Blixen Camp Trust helicopter is called in to push elephants out. The Karen Blixen Camp Trust helicopter has enabled MEP to increase our rapid response time and quickly and effectively mitigate human-elephant conflict situations.
In the long-term, MEP is conducting research to inform more sustainable responses. MEP is working with the KWS and Colorado State University to assess the current conflict mitigation toolkit, and test and develop new tools. These include low-cost chili balls that can be thrown to create a noxious cloud of chili powder when elephants are crop raiding. We are also using elephant tracking data in partnership with KWS to characterize elephant behavior in relation to crop raiding. This includes studying staging behavior by elephants, looking at how the layout of the natural and agricultural landscape may exacerbate or reduce conflict, and the use of buffer crops that are unpalatable to elephants. MEP’s research into the short and long-term solutions to crop raiding is critical in protecting the Mara’s elephants and communities.
“Community engagement and working with communities alongside forests, alongside national parks, alongside conservancies is key and critical to protecting wildlife.” Marc Goss, MEP CEO