On August 16, 2013, a large male elephant in Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve (ASFR) succumbed to multiple arrow wounds it had sustained some months earlier. As Kenya Wildlife Service and the ASFR management team were aware of the elephant’s injuries, its disposal was unceremonious: tusks were hurriedly collected and the carcass burned, to prevent both from falling into the hands of those responsible.
In order to better understand what had happened in this specific case, I recently asked David to accompany me to the elephant’s final resting place. David possesses unparalleled knowledge of the forest, and I was hoping he would have insights into this elephant’s demise, and that I could use this opportunity to initiate a discussion with David on illicit human activities within ASF.
As we rode to the forest’s northern swamp on David’s piki piki, I could tell David was in a good mood that day; he was hyper-attentive, and stopped multiple times to excitedly point out some of the forest’s unique flora and fauna, and to give me a lengthy explanation of history of the sand quarry within ASFR. David had been informed of the location of the elephant’s remains, and we found what was left of them with little trouble. I stood in awe for a few moments—taking in a scene which very well could have contended for a spot in one of National Geographic’s many picture-laden exposés on elephant poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa—only to be brought back to reality upon hearing David suddenly proclaim, “this poaching is now a large problem within the forest…it shouldn’t be like this.” My intentions were about to be realized.
The origins of human-elephant conflict in the region surrounding ASFR can be traced to a series of post-independence developments. Infrastructure projects on the western side of ASFR, particularly the construction of a water pipeline and paved road from the Sabaki River south to Mombasa, served to isolate the forest from similar, inland ecosystems—such as the northern area of Tsavo East National Park. These projects encouraged increased human settlement, and the resulting ‘shambafication’ of the western side of ASFR effectively rendered the forest an ecological island, severing it from the northern Tsavo ecosystem. As a result, elephants and other megafauna that once ranged, unobstructed, from the coastal forest to the interior found themselves confined. Attempts to transverse these newly-developed areas, as well as an increased incidence of crop-raiding (an ancillary consequence of the isolation of ASFR), increasingly brought humans and elephants into conflict. For forty years, this adversarial relationship—which I have very briefly summarized to enable the reader to appreciate the complex political and ecological processes that underly it—was the greatest threat to the elephant population that remained within ASFR. Thankfully, since the completion of the elephant fence in 2009, such conflict has been successfully mitigated.
While a positive development, the completion of the fence brought another cause of unnatural mortality of elephants within ASFR to the fore: ‘poaching,’ for their ivory tusks and large quantity of meat. According to David, while the ‘poaching’ of smaller animals within ASFR (e.g. suni, duiker, Gambian Giant rat) for meat is at an all time high, and thus highly visible—indeed, one is hard-pressed to walk any of the forest’s trails and not encounter numerous snares—it is very rare that an elephant is killed. Very few elephants have been ‘poached’ within ASFR in the past two decades, a testament to the work of Kenya Wildlife Service, David, and others engaged in conservation efforts within the forest, as well as a bit of good luck. (Elephant snares are set strategically along elephant paths, but because of numerous factors it is by no means guaranteed that an elephant will actually trip one and find itself caught.) Yet, David and others are troubled by what they see as redoubled efforts within recent years: last year, a Kenya Forest Service ranger and local community member both tripped poison-laden snares, which are now found in greater number within the forest, and David continues to find evidence of ‘poachers’’ tree hides bordering the Nature Reserve pools.
With the immense amount of publicity directed toward the incidence of ‘poaching,’ as well as reformed, renewed anti-poaching efforts, within Kenya (and Sub-Saharan Africa, more broadly) in recent years, the case of ‘our elephant’ (which had very likely been shot methodically by individuals intent upon harvesting it’s tusks and meat) begs an important question: Is ASFR becoming the new frontier of elephant ‘poaching’ in Kenya?
While only time can provide us with an answer, David is acting preemptively to ensure that this is not the case. Convinced that those who engage in illicit harvesting of animals from within ASFR are impoverished members of forest-adjacent communities, turning to such activities as an income-generation strategy, David is in the process of creating a group of individuals from these communities capable of addressing the underlying cause(s) of the problem. It is David’s hope that this group, which will be made of mainly teachers and meet for the first time early next month, can be utilized to foment bottom-up environmental education within forest-adjacent communities, as well as manage an alternative livelihoods training center for community members wanting to achieve greater income stability without illicitly accessing forest resources. As David’s passion for the forest is infectious and his knowledge of the complex politics of forest-adjacent communities well-versed, this is truly a promising initiative that could benefit both conservation efforts within ASFR and the well-being of forest-adjacent communities.
More updates on David’s work, as well as the results of this first meeting, are forthcoming.
About the author:
Greetings. My name is Zachary Petroni and I have the privilege of joining David after having been awarded the 2013-2014 Wallenberg Fellowship, which provides financial support for a recent University of Michigan graduate to engage in a year of research and experiential learning. In my case, I’ve chosen to focus on the links between conservation governance and justice, and am utilizing Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve as my principal case study. During my time here, I will be assisting David with his data collection efforts, as well as conducting data collection of my own, in an attempt to better understand the relationship(s) between conservation efforts and the well-being of human communities in this region of Kenya. I will also be assuming responsibility of this blog, and look forward to keeping you all updated on David’s daily activities and achievements.