Kenya’s new railway sparks human-elephant conflict

New York Times International

August 5, 2016

BODENI VILLAGE, Kenya–On a sun-baked plot in southern Kenya, Ana Musebeki grew lush fields of corn, mango, sugar cane and bananas near her small tin-roofed home. But just before harvest this year, elephants raided her crops, using their back ends to lift a barbed-wire fence. The hungry herd devoured almost everything. Musebeki, 50, lost a year’s income.


People living near Tsavo, Kenya’s largest national park, must cope with wildlife — including elephants, lions and buffalo — that roams between the two halves of the unfenced park, which covers about 22,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Wales. That tenuous co-existence has worsened because a new railway prevents elephants from moving between Tsavo East and West to find food and water.

On a sweltering day, Seraphine Chard, chairwoman for a local community council, sat in the shade of a tree and bemoaned the increasing elephant raids on farms. People wake up at night to bang pots and chase them away. “People can’t sleep,” she said. “Children can’t study. Elephants are also breaking water pipes.”

About 115,000 people live here in the Kasigau Corridor, over 200,000 hectares wedged between the two sides of Tsavo. This single park is home to some 12,500 elephants, half of Kenya’s elephant population.


A herd of male elephants near Tsavo in southern Kenya. Photo: Amy Yee

The 600-kilometer rail line under construction between the capital, Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa adds a formidable layer to an existing obstacle course for wildlife. The busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway already cuts through this corridor, as does a new oil pipeline and a railway built more than a century ago.

But while the other obstacles are at ground level, the new railway sits atop a 12-meter-high concrete embankment. A drainage ditch runs alongside, and elephants cannot step over it, leaving them stuck on one side of Tsavo.

Kenya sorely needs modern infrastructure like a fast train to Mombasa, the main port for all of East Africa and parts of Central Africa. The current railway is so unreliable that passengers seldom use it. Instead, they brave the two-lane “highway” that is actually a dusty, narrow road notoriously clogged with trucks and oil tankers.

But without careful planning, the government and developers risk more clashes between humans and animals, especially as the human population expands.

The balance is delicate. Even locals acknowledge the importance of the new railway. “We need the development,” Ms. Chard said. But she added: “They need to plan. They didn’t think about the people.”

Conservation groups around Tsavo say they were not consulted during railroad planning, even though researchers track elephant migration and could have advised on creating crossings. Now ordinary Kenyans bear the brunt of the conflict.
It is well-known that Africa’s elephants face a terrible crisis. Between 2010 and 2012, some 100,000 elephants — about one-fifth of the continent’s population — were poached for ivory, according to the conservation group Save the Elephants. It is lesser-known that in parts of Kenya, more elephants are killed by locals, in retaliation for crop raids or human deaths, than by poachers. Near Amboseli National Park, about three hours north of Tsavo, three elephants were killed for ivory in 2014, but as many as 30 were killed by locals in retaliation, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. In March, elephants killed four people near Amboseli, including a 9-year-old boy herding cattle. In turn, locals killed at least one elephant and speared several others.

The new railway, due to be completed in late 2017, puts even more pressure on the precarious ecosystem around Tsavo. Although some conservationists say the new construction is an “ecological disaster,” it’s not too late. Animals can pass through large archways built into the railway’s embankment, although these underpasses were placed randomly rather than at known wildlife crossings. Railway developers recently agreed to cover the drainage ditch in a few spots to let elephants pass. Researchers have radio-collared elephants to track migration; they hope their studies can be incorporated into plans to expand the Nairobi-Mombasa highway to four lanes.

Yet in just two weeks recently, three elephants were killed while trying to cross the railway and highway. Several people were also critically injured in the road accidents.

As the population grows and development increases, humans and wildlife become even more intertwined. Kenya’s population of 44 million is projected to top 81 million by 2050. More planning needs to be done now so wildlife and people can co-exist later.

People living near Tsavo usually do not poison or spear elephants in retaliation as they do in other parts of Kenya. That could change without real measures to avoid human-wildlife conflict. That would be especially tragic given Kenya’s gains since cracking down on poaching with tough new laws in 2014. Last year, 93 elephants were poached, compared with 384 in 2012, the African Wildlife Foundation said.

Kenya needs economic development, but wildlife must be considered during planning. Otherwise, hundreds of thousands of people living amid wildlife will suffer, along with the endangered animals that Kenya and much of the world are trying to save.

Amy Yee writes about human and economic development. Send comments to



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