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Uneasy truce between Maasai and nature

From David McKenzie, CNN
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Maasai learn to be wildlife guardians
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Around 80% of Africa's elephants live outside of protected parks in the wild
  • The Maasai people are a pastoral tribe living along the border of Kenya and Tanzania
  • Some Maasai have turned to farming, bringing them into conflict with local elephants
  • The Maasailand Preservation Trust is trying to teach locals to live peacefully with the wildlife

Maasailand, Kenya (CNN) -- For tourists visiting Kenya, elephants represent the majesty of nature -- but for those living on the land the animals are often seen as pests.

At the foot of Chyulu Hills in Kenya, an area famous for its wildlife and the Maasai people that call it home, getting the balance right between the two has always been a delicate task. As more people farm in the region the strain on wildlife increases.

Around 80% of Africa's elephants live outside of protected parks in the wild. One conservation group has turned to local communities in an attempt to find solutions to everyday problems so man and beast can live peacefully.

"You know, that elephant that we are seeing down there now, the chances are that last night he was out raiding a field -- or if you go out and see a lion I guarantee you within the last week he has probably killed something belonging to one of the landowners here," explained Richard Bonham, conservationist and founder of the Maasailand Preservation Trust.

The Maasai people are a pastoral tribe living along the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Their long-preserved culture and traditional way of life has made them one of the area's most famous tourist attractions.

But conflict between the Maasai tribe and the region's elephants is on the rise and can lead to tragedy.

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If this elephant problem doesn't get any better then we should just kill all the elephants.
--Reuben Silati, Maasai elder

One of the locals, Ndiari Ole Lemungur, was walking in a group near his homestead at night when he heard something moving.

"We were really scared ... at first we didn't know what was happening. But when we realized that it was an elephant two of us ran away and two stayed behind," he said.

He explained that one boy hid and narrowly escaped but another member of the tribe, Onetu, couldn't get away and was trampled to death.

"My son was young," said Onetu's father, Maasai elder Reuben Silati. "He had a long future ahead of him and I was hoping that he would take care of my homestead when I was gone. I am getting older every day and my son should have been the one to help me."

Silati called the trust and rangers tracked down and killed the elephant within hours. But this was not an isolated incident. As domestic animal and human populations grow conflict between animals and humans is more likely.

"If this elephant problem doesn't get any better then we should just kill all the elephants, because there is no need to live with them," Silati continued.

The Maasai have also taken up farming, something that is completely unlike these semi-nomadic people. But frequent droughts, put down to climate change, have led them to start growing food.

Kipareu Olesayiore is a Maasai farmer. He's begun growing melons and peas using irrigation. The practice has helped him supplement his income and survive the droughts.

Yes, you can choose to kill all the wildlife, but then what happens 10 years down line?
--Antony Kasanga, Maasailand Preservation Trust
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But farms eat into wild habitats and the melons are candy for the elephants.

"You chase them (elephants) out of the farms and if you follow them a little bit they will attack you," said Olesayiore. "They have been here for three years, but this year is by far the worst."

Olesayiore has started putting up flashlights and solar lamps to try to stop the elephant raids but the method isn't very effective. He says that from time to time foreigners come and tell him to protect the animals.

"I will work with foreigners coming in, I will listen to their ideas, but sometimes I wont listen because there isn't much wildlife left where they come from, is there?" he said.

But the Maasailand Preservation Trust has been working with the Maasai community to use arguments that make sense to the people that need to understand them.

"When I was a young boy I used to just think wildlife is a nuisance; there is no value," said Maasai Antony Kasanga, who now works for the trust.

"Yes, you can choose to kill all the wildlife, but then what happens 10 years down the line? You have a kid and in 20 years time he says 'Daddy, I want to go see a lion.' Where do you take him?" he continued.

Kasanga works with the farmers; he doesn't preach to them but instead gives out solutions.

He hands out thunder flashes to scare the elephants away and if their cattle are killed by lions the trust gives them compensation.

The organization has also started the only primary school in the area and gives out scholarships to help educate the next generation.

Its efforts to engage with the local communities and win their hearts and minds may be the best hope for securing free ranging wildlife in Africa.

 
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