Feature Story

Danger in the Kenyan parks

over-run by elephants
Local drink
As a photographer I stole their soul
2 bush problematics
Elephants raided his life
Me in a matatu

Lured by an impossible love I traveled to Kenya at the end of January 2010. Shortly after arrival, the object of my deep and soulful passion told me she wanted me more as a friend than boyfriend, no explanation whatsoever added. This senseless crushing of my heart angered me, and I decided to vent by shooting destructive monsters. In Kenya these destructive monsters are known as elephants, and their saga unfolded for my camera on the plantations of local farmers living around the Tsavo Conservation Area.

Though I couldn't at first find my destructive monster, the pictures I took certainly captured Africa. Weeks of being guided through the bush by locals, not really in favor of my shit. I needed a change of perspective.

I started to get in touch with some people at the Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS), including a pilot and some officers, all very willing to assist me. To obtain a permit to the park (and fly with the pilot), I had to ask permission from Mr. Yussuf Adan (director of the national park, responsible for all security and border matters). I put in a request for a meeting and received a personal invitation from the man himself to make my case in an oddly short amount of time.

Here was my chance - I had seen the struggles of the Kenyans first - hand, and now I was talking face to face to a man who could rectify. In a fit of goodwill I mentioned the problem of cattle coming to graze inside the park. Mistake. Next day Yussuf Adan called me to offer unfortunate news: Due to an unforeseen circumstance that was beyond the means of Mr. Adan to explain to me, if I wanted this permit I would have to travel in person to Nairobi to make my case to a KWS security advisor. I began to wonder if yet another newfound helpful friend had neglected to return my feelings.

I shared my distrust with one of my friends at KWS, who confirmed my suspicion that indeed Yussuf Adan was no little angel. According to this KWS employee, Yussuf has an agreement with some other highly placed administrators in charge of overseeing livestock security in the park to keep an eye closed on cattle coming inside the park (I withhold names here to protect my sources).

And then I met someone at the dirt-poor Ministry of livestock witch share its offices with TTWF, the NGO who helped me around. He told me how he and his colleagues had no voice for their concerns about the Ministry - and that they didn't even have a vehicle to oversee the livestock situation. He used his personal motorbike to drive me to places where huge numbers of cattle from Ndara Ranch go under the highway and railway line from Nairobi to Mombasa to graze the National Park - the same habitat meant to support the country's endangered elephants, black rhino's and many more species. The private Ndara Ranch was packed with cattle at first glance, but was way more green than the protected public land across the park boundaries. Questionable. On our way back, our spark plug blew. Hours of hitchhiking later, we got back to civilization, parched and exhausted.

After some research, the owner of Ndara Ranch appeared to be Eliud Timothy Mwamunga. He is a retired Member of Parlaiment (MP), and he has also held some ministerial posts. Locals call him a post-colonial land-grabber, and he still has a big influence on the region.

Piece by piece I started to construct an accurate overview of the situation. Director Yussuf Adan and at least 2 of his colleagues (all members of the local Somali tribe) run a cartel with herdsmen and/or ranch owners to turn a blind eye to the hundred of thousands of head of cattle who cross the park borders each day. An act of corruption with overwhelming effects: food scarcity for rare species like elephants and rhinos. According to KWS officials, last year more elephants died because of draught than from any other cause. Elephants roam outside the protected areas in search of water and food, and so they collide more and more with local farmers - farmers who bear no responsibility for the multitude of cattle grazing away the country's resources inside the park.

In the meantime two more informants corroborated the first story. The local farms face not only an invasion from Ndara ranch, but an invasion on all fronts at once, and even now I fear I have only uncovered the tip of the issue. The Kenyans who helped me with this story talk of hundreds of thousands of head of cattle. Then I add the sure presence of ivory poachers to the government's blind eye turned for the collaborating herdsmen. And the numbers of cattle eating the Elephants' food keep rising.

What made the disturbing end of this job, I am unable to say. One thing is sure. I haven't been photographing for 6 months, and lost all significant pictures of the job because it was still on the memory card. What had to be my breakthrough, ended up in a disaster. Right now I am in an office job.

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—The JPG team

2 responses

  • Fabrizio Ricci

    Fabrizio Ricci gave props (23 Sep 2010):

    great story...I love Kenya

  • Debrah Leonard

    Debrah Leonard (Deleted) gave props (24 Sep 2010):

    congratulations on story of the week

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