Gun in hand, Nebukadineza, an ill-tempered, turban-wearing farmer, rushes out of his house into the night in Laikipia County.
Desperate, the farmer bought the gun to protect himself and his crops from marauding elephants. Every morning he wakes to find his maize, cabbage, banana and sugarcane plantations trampled by elephants. Now, he’s at his wits end.
These scenes are from a play staged in Laikipia, Northeast Kenya, in which the farmer, played by Kelvin Mutugi, 39, attacks animals that have strayed into his farm and is apprehended by the authorities.
It is an enactment of the frustrations that farmers who live at the interface with conservation areas go through.
Kanyeki Ngatia, a farmer in Mutara, an agricultural area 250 kilometers north of Nairobi, has lived the life Mutugi fleshes out in the play. He said he has been a victim of elephant destruction and recently encountered one that had strayed into his neighbour’s maize farm.
“I have filed compensation claims more than five times, and although it has been 10 years I have never been compensated," he said. "Should they raid my crops today, I will not bother trying to seek compensation."
Human-elephant conflict is prevalent in the western part of Laikipia because it's close to Rumuruti Forest, home to a large number of elephants that often stray outside the forest confines and onto smallholder farms. Kanyeki’s frustrations mirror those of other farmers whose crops have been damaged by elephants.
Yet such losses not only cost the farmers but also the government. During World Elephant Day in 2018, the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism said it needed Sh15 billion (USD135 million) to compensate victims of human-wildlife conflict.
The wildlife too, are punished for straying into farms.
Images of a mob armed with pangas and axes hacking to death an elephant that had strayed into a farm in Meru County are still vivid after the clip went viral. Kenya Wildlife Service said the attack happened on June 21, 2018, after two elephants broke through an electric fence and raided a farm.
Human-elephant conflict is common in parts of Laikipia West, Meru and Narok and results in death, injury, and loss of livelihood for residents. Sometimes it also leads to the killing of wildlife.
Changing attitudes through entertainment
In parts of Laikipia and Samburu, however, a ragtag group of actors is using theatre to raise awareness and shape social interaction about conservation in a bid to prevent loss of life and property.
Mutugi, the leader of the street theatre troupe, wears many hats. He could be Nebukadineza the farmer or a disgruntled former security guard who is looking to join the illegal animal trophy business.
The theatre director and community environmental educator and his group Community Outreach Arts has staged plays with the message of conservation in Laikipia since 2007.
“If the people get a message from theatre and from people that they can relate with, then the message resonates,” he said. The troupe's goal, he said, is to engage local communities and end apathy in conservation.
“We are teaching the people how to protect themselves and their livelihoods and what action is appropriate to take and what is not,” Mutugi said.
Street theatre or community drama is gaining popularity among conservationists as a way of educating locals about the value of elephants and wildlife protection.
It does so by creating a platform for dialogue and reflection on conservation.
Space for Giants, a Kenyan conservation charity based in Laikipia, also uses drama to create awareness about wildlife protection as it builds three-foot-high electrified fences that deter elephants from wandering out of conservation areas into farmlands.
Samuel Githui, the project officer overseeing the organization's human-elephant conflict mitigation in Laikipia, said the villages where the events take place are selected because of their proximity to the fence or the species under threat.
The performances started in 2014, when incidences of poaching were high, as a way to discuss anti-poaching and the value of wildlife.
“But then from 2016 the performance theme changed to focus on the problem of human-elephant conflict and the solution, that was the fence,” said Githui.
He explained why interactive drama is effective in creating awareness about conservation challenges. “It breaks barriers of literacy, and creates opportunities to discuss complex and controversial issues in a relatively safe and open environment,” he said.
Mutugi and the other thespians have staged plays across the county, from Luoniek, a small trading centre near Mugie conservancy, to Wangwachi near Ol Ari Nyiro conservancy, Mutara and Sipili.
David Kimathi, 29, a farmer in Sipili, sat through one of the performances staged in the town during a meeting with the area chief.
Although he said he last saw a performance in 2017, he can recount the themes lucidly.
“After they performed, people talked about it for a long time. I think it helps because the people who were cutting the fences where the animals live stopped,” Kimathi said.
Laikipia County, shadowed by Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare Ranges, is like a coin with two faces.
One part of Laikipia is lush green. It's a place where farmers such as Kanyeki cultivate horticultural crops for export. As one moves deeper into the county and crosses into Samburu, however, another face becomes apparent. A dry and harsh one.
For the pastoralists, their worry is not about marauding elephants but pasture for livestock.
In the region, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which supports 39 community conservancies across northern Kenya, has produced a series of cartoons they use to explore issues of poaching, conservation, human-wildlife conflict and raise discussion about unsustainable grazing management, which has degraded grasslands and contributed to land invasion and insecurity.
The five-minute animated videos are dubbed in Kiswahili and Samburu and are screened to the community in public barazas.
The first episode opens with vultures circling the carcass of a cow that is lying on cracked land. Then to an astonished crowd, an elephant known as Mr. Tembo and an aging man, tell the story of a land that was lush green.
“This land used to be green. There were rivers that flowed into Ewaso Nyiro and Archer’s Post was just a small town. There were herds of elephants everywhere and the cows had pasture,” Mr. Tembo says.
The increasing population and livestock have sparked competition for pasture.
And as pasture decreases, the guns increase. Over the ratatat of gunshots, the narrator laments that the guns have brought carnage on the land. The communities are fighting over pasture and the wildlife are caught in the melee.
“Guns have also made it easy to kill wild animals and that is why we have fewer elephants now," Mr. Tembo says. "What is sad is the demand for tusks by people who do not care about what happens in our land."
NRT Director of Natural Resource Management Kieran Avery said they settled on the cartoons to deliver consistent and clear messages.
“Different people, when tasked to deliver the same message, nearly always end up delivering the message differently and this can bring issues when the messaging detail is so critical,” he said.
“Cartoons are also neutral; the characters are made up and therefore people do not judge them and are not distracted by them. Cartoons are entertaining - the message can be delivered in a light manner,” he added.
This story was originally published by The Standard in Kenya on 2 November 2020. It was produced with funding from the Earth Journalism Network, a project of Internews.
Banner image: Performers from Community Outreach Arts group in Laikipia perform a skit at Louniek in Laikipia North / Credit: Kibata Kihu/ Standard