Kwale,KENYA: In a small room in the compound housing the servant quarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service in Kwale county, Kafari Mwarimo answers a phone call.
“ The park is not accessible at the moment,” Mwarimo says to the caller.
Mwarimo who is the manager of the Mwaluganje elephant sanctuary which is Kenya’s first community-owned elephant sanctuary says he receives several of such calls every day mostly from tour operators and his answer is a hard-hitting reality of the collapse the sanctuary’s main income generating activity that has left the local community disgruntled.
Dilapidated roads and bridges that were washed away following heavy rains experienced in May 2017 have rendered game drives around the 35 square kilometer sanctuary impossible.
“The situation there is tough, I will not lie,” Mwarimo says while pointing towards the direction of the sanctuary 14 kilometres away.
But Mwaluganje’s problem is more complex than just inaccessibility.
The elephant sanctuary which neighbors the Shimba hills national reserve was established in the early 1990’s to provide a migratory corridor for elephants coming from the drier Tsavo East national park to the Shimba hills national reserve and vice versa.
The land surrounding the park being arable farming land, locals who are mostly from the Digo and Duruma sub-tribes of the Mijikenda community relied heavily on farming which made the area a hotspot of human-elephant conflict.
An agreement between the Kenya wildlife service, Kenya forest service, the local community and organizations such as the Born free foundation, the United States Agency for International Development and Eden wildlife trust saw the formation of the first community-owned conservancy park which is managed by members of the local community in a bid to mitigate the escalating conflict.
In the model, income generated from the sanctuary would facilitate yearly compensation payments to members of the local community who leased out their farming lands to the sanctuary.
The model worked quite well and an investor even built the Travelers Mwaluganje camp, a tented camp that catered to tourists wishing to spend the night at the park in an agreement that would see the investor maintain the infrastructure around and inside the sanctuary.
Terror and Tourism crisis
According to Mwarimo, their woes began in late 2013 after several countries such as the United Kingdom, France and the US issued travel advisories against travel to parts of the Kenyan coast to their citizens following frequent attacks blamed on members of the Alshabaab terror group.
Mwarimo adds that the close to 300 farmers who leased out their land to the sanctuary used to receive yearly compensation payments of almost sh. 1500 per acre when the sanctuary was self-sustaining but the payments dropped to almost sh. 200 per acre which left majority of them disgruntled.
In 2014 at the height of the terror and tourism crisis in the region, fire razed down the Travellers Mwaluganje tented camp and Mwarimo says that was some sort of informal withdrawal by the investor who had invested in the tented camp.
“For the past 3 years we have not received not even a single tourist” Mwarimo says.
This was a big blow to the sanctuary which was relying heavily on the revenue from tourism activities.
Optimism in the face of adversity
Back at the office, Mwarimo shows me a paper with a symbolic image of an elephant drawn on it.
“Most of the visitors who visited the park before the crisis will live to remember their visit because of this,” he says as his face lights up.
The paper Mwarimo shows me is a product of one of the income generating activities that the local community at the sanctuary has engaged in for the past decade.
The project which entails making paper from elephant dung kicked off in the early 2000’s with assistance from the USAID.
A report by the National elephant organization indicates that adult elephants eat about 300 kilograms of food in a day and about 60kg of that is excreted in waste.
The David Sheldrick wildlife trust states that the Shimba hills-Mwaluganje ecosystem is home to approximately 500 elephants.
The process of making the paper is simple and requires cheap and locally available material such as pestle and mortar, rectangular tables, boiling pots, and wood glue.
First, the dried dung is boiled in a boiling pot while in a separate pot, normal papers are also boiled.The boiled dung is then pounded and separated from the chuff .The paper is then pounded separately before mixing.
A mixture of water and wood glue is added to the paper-dung mixture and stirred with a large piece of wood and finally the mixture placed on a meshed screen frame to enhance the shape and dried on a clothed table.
According to Fatuma Juma who supervises the process at the sanctuary, the final product is Khaki in colour .
Mwarimo says the end products from the papers are journals and pieces of paper art which they supply to traders along beach resorts and attraction sites who then resell to tourists who need to take back home souvenirs from their Kenyan trip.
Though Mwarimo admits that income generated from sale of the paper is not enough to sustain the compensation and they have had to rely on conservation organizations such as the David Sheldrick wildlife trust , he says the activity has been keeping locals who would have otherwise been rendered jobless by the collapse of tourism busy as the management is sourcing for another investor .
With the loss of habitat due to activities such as illegal logging and farming being the biggest threat to elephants worldwide,Mwarimo says the Kenyan government should support such initiatives to reduce reliance on wood to manufacture paper.