Your Elephants, Our Children
Driving into Transmara from the Rift Valley around the Masai Mara is a bit shocking. Lush green hills heavily patched with old forest roll away as far as you can see. It looks so completely idyllic that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a hobbit wander up to me and offer me breakfast. And so it is hard to imagine the battles that happen here. A few days ago I came out here to Masai-land in southwestern Kenya to look at the conflicts between elephants and the Masai communities. I spent the first two days in Lolgorien, which is just west of Masai Mara National Reserve. I came here because Noah Sitati of the World Wildlife Fund asked me to look into the conflicts between elephants and school children in the Masai communities.
Elephants are intelligent, emotional and beautiful creatures, but they can also be extremely dangerous. When surprised an elephant will often attack people, and they frequently kill. The elephants come to the villages to raid the fields, grain stores, and houses for any grain they can find, and they have an excellent sense of smell. They move back and forth between the forests and the villages in the early morning and late afternoon, exactly the times when kids are going to and returning from school. There are no school buses, and the kids walk most of the way through the bush – often walking up to 5km each way. The children are afraid, and for good reason. Several school children in the area have been killed in recent years – one was recently trampled to death. So, many children stay home out of fear or arrive at school hours late.
All of the Masai land around the Mara is having elephant problems. The human population here has been steadily increasing – people are making more farms and cutting down more forest, which is reducing habitat for the elephants. So people and elephants are in conflict more than ever. This brings up the basic question that conservationists don’t like to address: can people and wildlife coexist in the long run, or will all wild animals that don’t mix well with people end up being confined entirely to parks and reserves? It isn’t an easy question.
I’ll say this up front… I have always felt more sympathetic to the plight of nature than to the plight of suffering people. This doesn’t mean at all that I don’t care about people, but in my experience man is the ultimate survivor in this world, and our survival and prospering has come at the great expense of the natural world. Of course it is easy for me to say this. Here I am tapping out a blog on a laptop computer in a country with an average annual income of $315. Most of the people I have met here cannot imagine even what I am doing now – waiting for dinner with a middle class Kenyan dinner, drinking a glass of wine and writing this blog. Simply by being a middle-class American, I was born among the fortunate prosperous few in the world.
Years back I walked into the office of Dr. Ray Bohlin, an evangelical preacher and publisher. His office was filled with dozens of versions of the bible and stacks of the pamphlets that missionaries hand out on street corners. Dr. Bohlin has kind eyes, and yet because of our differences I sat down with a bit of hesitation. Dr. Bohlin is a pro-life, god-fearing Christian and evangelicals have typically been opposed to the environmental movement. but he is also a staunch conservationist which is why I was visiting him.
When it came down to it, we shared far more morals than we differed in with regard to both nature and people. I had been fighting for conservation because I felt a need to protect what I saw as the most threatened and beautiful parts of our planet, Ray was fighting for conservation because he feels that God commanded man to be the steward of his creation. Still, when it comes down to it, Dr. Bohlin would put more of his energy into fighting to help man, and I would put more energy into fighting to help nature. Are we so different? I don’t think so.
Yesterday I woke up in Narok, Kenya, the closest big town to Masai Mara National Reserve. I woke to the scratchy, amplified calls to prayer from a nearby mosque. Below the hotel crowds of people swarmed the pitted and rutted dirt roads of the small city. On the way out of town I drove by a cow quietly munched rotting vegetables from a smoking and overflowing dumpster next to an outdoor church blaring with the rage of a fiery sermon in Swahili. “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself as I crept my car between the masses of people and decrepit stalls.
I came to Narok after Lolgorien, because the Masai communities around Narok have been terrorized by elephants that raid their crops and break into their houses in search of grain. We drove up into the hills east of Narok under a grey sky and stopped at a small school on the dirt road. Kool, my Masai guide (yes that’s his real name) works for little to no pay for WWF monitoring conflicts between elephants and the communities here.
Kool showed me where the elephants had broken through the barbed wire surrounding the school. They live in the forest below the school and walk through the school grounds to get to the farms up the hill. Later that day we went to look at several houses that had been broken into by elephants in search of grain. This one to the right was the last one we saw. In the middle of the night an elephant broke through the wall of the bedroom where a mother and her children were sleeping. It took a 50 kilo bag of maize and then went around the other side of the house and ripped the upper half off another wall to get at the wheat stores. In the end it took all of their food.
The next day after a torturous drive out muddy dirt roads I met a Masai man, a teacher, who had been attacked by an elephant two months earlier. He and his cousin told me what happened as we sat on a rough bench overlooking rolling hills of patchy farm and forest land. When the elephants came to steal his crop he went out to scare them away with a flashlight. Two left but when he turned around there was a large male still there, and it attacked him. He ran but the elephant knocked him to the ground and tried to impale him with its tusks. Though he avoided being impaled, the elephant stepped on his leg before leaving. This educated man said that he doesn’t care about the elephants anymore. If it were up to him he would cut all the forests down and “turn the area into a dessert” just to get rid of them.
What is right and what is wrong here? When I decided to look at this question, I knew I was stepping out of my comfort zone. I am comfortable in the wilderness. I feel most safe away from people – surrounded by nothing but forest, stars, sea, meadow. But that world only exists in patches now. People used to live in a sea of wilderness, but now we have built a matrix of human influence that wraps over every square inch of the earth and wilderness exists in patches and scraps embedded in that matrix. This isn’t my comfort zone, but this is the world now. It is a human painted world, but nobody knows what we are painting. We are blind painters of our own landscape.
There are some possible solutions. Maybe. I’ll end this here and write about them next time. “your elephants”? I’ll write about that too. It’s complex, like everything. I video recorded several of my talks with people who have been attacked. Maybe I can get some time to edit and put some of those up as well.
Until then, the kids in Masai land are still laughing at themselves in my camera and pushing each other away to see themselves. Even the kids that had been screaming two nights ago as an elephant smashed the wall down into their house still ran after me laughing and jumping in front of my camera. Sometimes laughter can fly in the face of fear and drive it into the past.
If you haven’t already read it, this post relates to my previous post about moving elephants. Definitely worth a look – truly surreal. You can see it here: moving-elephants