Elephant Populations in Kenya Emerge as New Victim of Poverty

Murka doesn't trust humans. It's no wonder.

The two-year-old baby elephant had a spear lodged in her forehead when she was found hiding in thick bush. Murka charged anyone who came near. After much effort, veterinarians removed the weapon, leaving a large hole in her forehead.

When we saw Murka at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a sanctuary in Nairobi for endangered species like elephants and rhinos, she was isolated from the others. A blanket had been tied around her in preparation for the cold Nairobi night. This can be a dangerous task given her hate for humans. Standing as tall as a man's chest, a baby can still be dangerous.

The gash on Murka's head reminded us of the signs in airports warning travelers of ivory bans. But the young elephant's tusks haven't even started to show.

Murka isn't the victim of traditional poachers. She's caught in a battle with humans for dwindling land. It's worsened by poverty and threatens elephant populations worldwide. But, you won't see it mentioned at customs lines.

"One of the major factors in Kenya is too many people with not enough land," says Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the conservationist who runs the sanctuary named after her late husband. "Elephants need space and are fast finding themselves confined to small refuge areas. Every time they step out they are in conflict with humans."

We've spent every summer since we were teenagers in a Kenya, befriending many of the sanctuary's keepers and even bottle-feeding some orphaned elephants. They're incredibly playful. If you crouch low, they'll try to knock you over. It's a rough game but always followed by affectionate hug with their trunks.

It's emotional seeing babies released back into the wild. We always hope to one day see them again lumbering past our centre on the Maasai Mara. Like the people we've gotten to know in the communities, we hope they too can overcome Africa's crippling poverty.

"There is no welfare in Kenya so people survive as best they can," says Sheldrick. "An expanding human population combined with poor governance amplifies the problem."

According to a United Nations Environmental Programme report released in July, Kenya's Maasai Mara lost 59 per cent of its large animals between 1970 and 2005.

This shocking decline includes elephants caught up in poverty-related issues.

Kenya's human population of 38 million is increasing by a million each year, according to the 2009 census. About 67 per cent of people live on rural land where farming is the primary means of income. This development pushes animals into reserves.

When elephants wander out searching for food, they trample crops, endangering livelihoods.

"Too many people and not enough land," says Sheldrick. "The population growth is not sustainable."

As well as land encroachment, elephants are also victims of the illegal bush meat trade. A 2004 survey of 202 Nairobi butchers found 25 per cent of their product was actually illegal meat, including elephant.

It's usually young men who become hunters using traditional methods like snaring. They don't always succeed in trapping large animals. But, if the prey is injured or bleeding, it's easy to pick off.

We often see young men unloading large slabs of meat from pickup trucks in market towns on the Mara. The meat obviously doesn't come from the malnourished cows we pass on the road. A cheaper option than beef or goat, it's bought by mamas who turn the protein into stews or soups and stretched over a few meals with ugali, an inexpensive, doughy bread that quickly fills the stomach.

For the entirety of her young life, Murka has been in competition with humans for Kenya's scarce land. No one is sure whether or not Murka was targeted for her meat or for venturing too close to a farm. Either way, it's clear the young elephant is also a victim of poverty.