Research to protect subsistence Sagalla farmers and the iconic red elephants of Tsavo in Kenya

Habari yako!? (Swahili greeting – How are you?) - PhD research by Georgia Troup

Human-wildlife conflict is one of the greatest conservation challenges faced today, particularly in developing countries such as Kenya. Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks are home to the largest population of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Kenya. The Taita Taveta district separating the Parks is primarily comprised of small-holder farms, and experiences a high level of crop-raiding by elephants leaving the Park in search of nutritious crops. Elephants are at risk of being injured (or in extreme circumstances, killed) in retaliatory attacks by farmers, who can be severely injured or killed themselves. In the Sagalla community of Taita Taveta, farmers use beehive fences, in addition to harmful local mitigation methods (e.g. throwing stones, lighting firecrackers), to deter intruding elephants. Subsistence farmers suffer economic and social loss, while elephants are losing their natural habitat and are being harmed in the process. Moreover, conflict creates negative perceptions of human-elephant co-existence, which threatens the long-term survival of the threatened African elephant. The level of conflict will continue to increase as the human population further encroaches into elephant habitat, unless we properly begin to understand why these elephants are risking their lives to raid crops.

Working in collaboration with Save the Elephants’ Elephants and Bees Project, the ultimate objective of my study is to gain a thorough understanding of the behaviour of crop-raiding elephants in the Sagalla community of Taita Taveta, providing insight for the development of long-term, targeted management techniques aimed at reducing crop-raiding in the area. This will significantly improve the lives and prospects of the Sagalla people, while also helping to protect African elephants. Specifically, research investigates a) the social dynamics of crop-raiding elephants, and b) the nutritional motivation for crop-raiding by elephants in this semi-arid area of East Africa.

My research involves working closely with both the subsistence farmers of Sagalla, and the iconic red elephants of Tsavo East National Park. I live in a small village where the people struggle to protect their farms from risk-taking elephants, and see first-hand the damage crop-raiding can cause an individual, a family and a community. The farmers are so appreciative of our help, and there are many personalities and faces that will stay with me forever. I’m also extremely fortunate to be able to study in Tsavo East National Park, and record the social and foraging behaviour of wild elephants every day! Long days in the intense heat in the field can be very tiring, but seeing these gentle giants in their natural habitat is a very special privilege.

Each day is challenging, exciting, exhausting and rewarding all in one, but there is no place I’d rather be, or study I’d rather be doing!