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A Small Tale of Human-Elephant Conflict on Kenya’s Northern Border

One of my favorite zoo signs was created by the folks at the world famous San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park (AKA Wild Animal Park). If you’re a zoophile, you have probably seen this sign! For sale in the zoo shop and posted around the two wildlife campuses, the sign lists a whole bunch of descriptive, synonymic verbs intended to warn people not to harass the animals on display:

“Please do not annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bully, rag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize, or ruffle the animals.”

Unfortunately, we know that although the signs clearly admonish people in regard to their conduct on the premises, a few kids and adults will undoubtedly misbehave.  Most often, visitors simply seek a means to catch an animal’s attention—evoking some kind of response from the beast. Rarely is there malicious intent behind the misdoings of patrons; and although these culprits may indeed succeed in harassing and disturbing the zoo animals, captive ambassadors are quite resilient and live pretty comfortably under human care.  With that said, please be respectful to the animals when you do visit your local zoo.

Now, imagine if you are a child growing up in the bush and succumb to these same temptations.  There may be signs posted around national parks and preserves, but the risk is much greater if you make the poor choice of harassing a wild animal in a protected park or in your backyard.  Wildlife can retaliate and the outcome can be deadly.

Yesterday, I spoke with my friend Alisiyad Asa—a Kenyan national, who grew up in the small town of Isiolo over thirty years ago.  Alisiyad now drives a cab in Los Angeles, but his formative years were spent in and around Isiolo in Northeastern Kenya.

Isiolo sits between the city of Meru and the Ethiopian town of Moyale on Kenya’s northern border.  The inhabitants of the region include people of the Oromo, Rendile, Somali, and Samburu tribes.  These semi-nomadic and nomadic people frequently interact with the charismatic wildlife of the East African bush because wild animals literally walk into their dwellings.

As we know, not all confrontations between wildlife and pastoral communities end favorably, but I’m always eager to learn about this social interface with Africa’s megafauna so I can better understand human dimension aspects of wildlife management both in the developing world and here at home.

As we talked about human-wildlife conflict, Alisiyad shared the following story with me:

“Unfortunately, we had no access to cameras back then.  Therefore I don’t have any pictures or any other evidence to share with you. All my albums and photos got burned in a house fire right before I left for the United States…..

It happened in a town called Isiolo.  On a Thursday morning in 1985, my three friends and I snuck out of school and decided to look for wild animals around 10.00 am. A few miles from Isiolo, we saw a herd of elephants grazing towards town. We followed them and admired them for a while. We finally decided we would chase them in to town. We thought if we chased the biggest one the rest would follow.  So we stood a few feet on the opposite side of a small tree facing the biggest animal. We started throwing rocks at its face. We must have hurt him, because it made such a loud noise that we felt the Earth shake beneath us, and then the elephant started stepping on the tree while heading toward us. We ended up running in three different directions. Each of us felt the elephant was chasing him.

I don’t know how I did it, but I remember jumping to reach tree branches that were taller than me. I finally came to a major street and managed to look back, only to find that I was the one being chased; my heart  pounded all along the way.  The elephants probably changed course after the initial chase. But then I had a problem—I couldn’t move. I sat down and checked my right foot, which was in a great pain. I found a big thorn that had been impaled through my flip flop into my right heel.

One of my friends showed up about half a mile down the street. I yelled for help and he came over and aided me as I removed the half inch long thorn from my foot. That was a good lesson for us because we never ventured back in to the wild after that experience.”

Alisiyad and his friends were lucky, but on a small scale this story exemplifies common human-wildlife interactions, which are no different from what I see in this country with regard to North American wildlife. Yet we seem to harshly castigate people when they impose on wildlife elsewhere.

I don’t believe Alisiyad had contempt for the elephants. If anything he developed a healthy respect for them. By agitating the pachyderms, he was doing what kids do.

In the United States we erect elaborate signs in our local zoos and people continue to misbehave, and occasionally act, albeit perhaps innocently, disrespectful towards wildlife. I’m enamored with elephants, but I’m not sure how I would act if a herd of them walked into my backyard.

Fortunately, the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group has a subcommittee—the Human-Elephant Conflict Working Group—which studies local peoples’ perceptions of elephants, among other issues relevant to elephant conservation.  Ultimately, this task force supports efforts to mitigate conflict in range countries of the African elephant.  Much of what we can do to help improve relations between people and wildlife is simply to learn from their past experiences and certainly not force our own value systems and beliefs on them to the detriment of diplomacy.




  1. kim
    San Francisco, California
    September 9, 2012, 3:45 pm

    This article hit home with me, as someone who spends time daily in my local parks, zoo and beach, I continually witness multiple offenses against wildlife. It hurts my heart and there is no back. I am often left to be the one who says something. At our Zoo, there are minimal signs about behavior, even though part of the San Francisco Zoo Mission is Education. I have also reported behavior, the worst being a Visitor throwing something at one of the Chimps, and Staff/Security did nothing and said nothing to the Visitor. The Parks have NO signs about behavior yet there are many lakes with water life (ducks/turtles/ect) that are a constant target for evil-doers. So, i’m left to be surrounded by a society that allows this behavior. Don’t get me started on the other things in our culture that allow, flaunt and even promote awful treatment towards animals.