Laikipia County is widely known as a paragon of wildlife conservation.
But that situation is changing, thanks to a construction boom there, which has aggravated to the conflict between man and the more than the 80 large mammalian species and hundreds of carnivores in the region.
The Kenya wildlife Service (KWS) has expressed concern about human encroachment on animal habitats, saying it will make an already bad situation worse. It says on its website that the increased population has led to encroachment on historical wildlife areas, corridors, breeding zones and buffer areas.
KWS Senior warden for Laikipia County Richard Chepkwony says the human activities are “unplanned” and can only spell further trouble.
“Structures erected on migratory paths that bring the animals into contact with human beings can only create problems,” he warns.
His views are supported by a 2009 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation titled.
“Human-Wildlife Conflict in Africa, Causes, Consequences and management Strategies”, which noted that the transformation of animals’ habitats into urban agglomerate for housing and agrarian activities robs them of their peaceful access to water from natural resources and changes the way they live.
And indeed, hyenas have killed both people and livestock, while elephants have destroyed crops and demolished houses. Not unexpectedly, the local residents have retaliated by killing the animals.
Mr Chepkwony says as a result of the construction boom, people are harvesting sand from river banks, in the process scaring the animals from their hide-outs and making them aggressive.
He singles out Rumuruti, and specifically a place called Suguroi, as well as some areas in bordering Meru County like Timau, as hotspots for great human-wildlife conflicts.
Cases of fatal injuries have also been reported in areas close to rivers in Makanya near the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which are used by both animals and humans.
Samson Masila, a real estate consultant with Property Link Africa, says that in the county’s Rumuruti Town, the price of an acre of land has trebled in the last year.
When there was no more prime land in Nanyuki’s central business district, developers started targeting land on the town’s outskirts, which is largely inhabited by animals.
Paradoxically, Laikipia’s landscape and wildlife are part of the reason it is drawing investors, intent on capitalising on the cool climate.
Ms Rose Thogo, the director of real estate company Ryden International, says the building boom is not about to slow down.
“The weather is good, it is scenic and teeming with flora and fauna,” she says. “And it is just a three-hour’s drive from Nairobi,” she says.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy, East Africa’s biggest rhino sanctuary is in Laikipia county, and is also home to the world’s largest population of the endangered grevy zebra, reticulated giraffe and African painted dogs.
FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
Laikipia’s closeness to the city explains why it is popular among investors from all over the country, as well as foreigners who want to build holiday homes or practice large-scale horticulture.
The human-wildlife conflict has grown over the years because the population of human beings in has increased alongside that of animals.
In their book, The Landscapes: Wildlife and People of Kenya’s High Country, Laikipia, Roy and Jones combine the works of renowned wildlife researchers, such as Dr Rosie Woodroofe and Antony Kingnote, trace the surge in elephant numbers in the county to rife poaching in North-Eastern Province in the ’70s.
As the gateway to Kenya’s wild Northern frontier, Laikipia become a route for frightened elephants running away from poachers. Besides, the area’s vegetation — woodland and bush — provided not just food, but refuge as well.
As their numbers grew, they started destroying crops on farms. But the animals’ aggression is not innate; they find themselves in the middle of a complex ecological system underpinned by scarcity, in which they must fight to survive.
But the situation can be contained. For instance, Mr Chepkwony cites the electric fences that have been erected to keep animals confined within sanctuaries. Unfortunately, elephants know thow to destroy the barriers to reclaim their traditional migratory routes.
Artificial corridors such as the $250,000 (Sh22.7million) passing through the Lewa Conservancy and Ngare Ndare Forest up to of Mount Kenya was even lined with hay and elephant dung to entice the animals through.
However, as American scholar Robin Radcliffe, who teaches wildlife conservation at Cornell University in New York, pointed out when he visited Kenya in 2013, animals rarely adapt to artificial corridors.
“Wild animals follow a traditional route in search of water and pasture. They never obey man-made borders and we need to create room for them to follow their ‘natural path’ if we are to save them from extinction,” he explained.
Meanwhile, human beings often found themselves smack in the middle of natural animal behaviour that turn the beasts into killers.
Animal psychologists Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss write in their book, Musth in the African Elephant about “musth”, a period of sexual excitement when the mammals become easily agitated because testosterone levels increase tenfold.
The psychologists also advance the infirmity theory to explain why injured, sick or old lions resort to eating humans.
Buffaloes are easily irritated when sexually aroused, and it has been recorded in different studies that rabies exacerbates aggression and loss of fear of human beings in animals.
In his 2006 report, “Living with Lions”, American lion researcher Laurence Frank brings to the fore a phenomenon known as “surplus killing”, during which lions tend to kill more people and animals than they can eat when they break into an enclosed place. Later, the carnivores become specialised hunters, with an insatiable thirst for blood.
Chepkwony says that animals are naturally peaceful but are easily provoked under certain biological conditions.
What’s more, many local people have little sympathy for wildlife, which they view either as food, or a threat to be eliminated.
Ms Thogo is optimistic that the problem will be contained because private ranchers — such as the 60,000-acre Lewa Conservancy and 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta Tanch, among others — are devoted to conserving wildlife.
Chepkwony is equally optimistic, citing the Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill of 2013 which recognises and regulates conservancies and allows KWS to employ more staff, among other things