Week 4: Up Close with Human-Wildlife Conflict

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             Mount Kilimanjaro. Everyone knows it. Whether you saw it in the Lion King or heard about it in Toto’s “Africa”, Kilimanjaro stands as one of the world’s most famous mountains and the highest in Africa. When I learned I’d be spending 10 days in the Amboseli region of Kenya, under the shadow of Kili, I was excited to see this renowned giant up close. But I was completely unprepared for the sight. In Kiswahili the name means Mountain (Kilima) of Greatness (Njaro). It’s fitting. Kilimanjaro dominants the horizon like nothing I had ever seen before, and served as an impeccable backdrop for 10 of the more memorable days of my life.

My sunrise view of Kilimanjaro from the porch of my bedroom

Tourists all over the world flock to Amboseli not just for the views of Kilimanjaro, but for the unique landscape of Amboseli National Park. During the dry season, it’s a desolate wasteland of dust and dirt, characterized by surreal dust storms and post-apocalyptic views like the one below.

The post-apocalyptic scene during a dust storm in the National Park

But when the rains come, the landscape blossoms into a green swampland full of life. There are animals galore – buffalo, wildebeest, antelope, gazelles, lions, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, hyenas, jackals, and more. The main attractions, though, were the elephants. Watching those majestic animals saunter right past your car was a thrill that never got old. I couldn’t believe that I was actually about to take a class in such a magical environment.

A mama elephant and her little baby traverse the swamplands of Amboseli

My course in Amboseli was special not just because of the incomparable location, but because of the incomparable teacher. We were led by Paula Kahumbu, one of Kenya’s greatest modern conservationists and a champion of elephant protection in Africa. For a week and a half we learned from her about the shockingly prevalent issue that is human-elephant conflict. It’s an immensely complex topic but, in short, the interaction between native humans and elephants in Eastern Kenya is less than friendly. Elephants, during their routine migrations or searches for food often enter farms and civilizations, wrecking crops and sometimes injuring/killing humans. The humans will then often retaliate by killing elephants. It’s a vicious cycle that only results in the mutual hatred between humans and elephants. During our time in Amboseli we worked with Paula, local farmers, and other community members to propose real solutions to protect both elephants and people. It was truly eye-opening to participate in a class that did something so meaningful and applicable in such a short period of time.

An elephant named Isuka shows he’s got a friendly and silly side

But perhaps the craziest, wildest, funniest experience of my entire time in Kenya so far came during one of my last few days in Amboseli. A small group of us had gone into the National Park in an attempt to test elephant-intervention techniques on baboons. In other words, we wanted to spray chili-infused vapor at baboons and see if it was enough to stop them from eating the nuts we placed as bait. The latest of our weekly brilliant ideas.

In short, it failed. Baboons don’t give a crap about chili vapor and are more than happy to cough a bit and keep stuffing their face (relatable, honestly). So we left the park, dejected, and ready to drown our failure in a mountain of food. On our drive out we were forced to stop after one of my fellow classmates accidently sprayed chili into his own eye so I, being impatiently hungry, ripped open a bag of chips and began crunching away.

If you’ve been following along, you may remember that we travel around Kenya in large vans with lift-able roofs that allow us to stand and search for wildlife as we drive. It was a particularly hot day, so we had decided to open all the windows and the top.

As I sat in the van happily chomping on chips, I see out of the corner of my eye an alarming sight. In what was almost slow motion I watch, stunned, as a full-grown baboon emerges from the forest, runs up to our vehicle, and jumps through the window and onto my lap – grabbing at the bag of chips.

Panic ensues.

I start playing tug-of-war with this baboon, as we both grapple for control of the chips. The Masaai guard outside the van begins whacking the monkey with a stick as my friends in the backseat shriek in surprise and confusion. “GIVE IT TO HIM!!” one yells repeatedly into my ear. But that’s not how I was programmed. No one steals food from me. I hold on to those chips like my life depends on it as the monkey hops off my lap onto the top of the seat. Then, with one final tug, the bag rips open and spills grease and chips all over the van as the baboon leaps through the roof, out of the car, and onto a nearby tree.

Honestly, the whole scene was hilarious. We spent the next 30 minutes bent over laughing at our personal introduction to human-wildlife conflict. We even realized later that the baboon attacker was actually a mother, who carried her tiny baby with her on her stomach during her attempted heist. At this point I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or ashamed that I held onto those chips so vehemently. We were picking them off the floor of the van and out of backpacks days later.

The dejected would-be chip thieves after being denied my prized snacks

All in all, my 10 days in Amboseli were some of my most memorable to date. Getting the opportunity to study conservation with one of Africa’s finest and most prestigious environmental champions was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The animals were beyond incredible, and the backdrop provided by Mt. Kilimanjaro was truly epic. And of course, fighting over a bag of chips with a very hungry monkey is not something you do every day (although I’ve done something similar with my sisters many times). But most importantly, the things I learned about conservation and human-wildlife interactions are lessons I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. I used to think that conservation was such a one-sided field – that the only concern was how to protect and save the poor suffering animals. It never occurred to me until seeing it firsthand that for many people in Africa animals like elephants can cause real problems to their lifestyles and well-being. I now recognize that any conservation efforts will need to reconcile this conflict, and give humans and wildlife the means to peacefully and harmoniously coexist.

Thank you again for tuning in! Check back next week to read about some traumatic, terrifying, and completely-worth-it adventures I had in the mountains of Kenya. But for now, I’ll leave you with one final photo of a dust tornado – just one of the many unique things I witnessed in Amboseli National Park:

Where else but Africa can you find a tornado of dust?

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Tutaonana Baadaye!

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