From poaching to avocados, Kenya’s elephants face new threat

Kimana, Kenya, March 18 (AFP/APP): Just after dawn, Tolstoy lumbers into view. A wandering giant, with tusks almost scraping the earth, this great elephant has roamed beneath Mount Kilimanjaro for nearly 50 years.

He has survived ivory poachers, spear attacks and terrible drought, but the mighty bull could be confronting a new threat to his natural realm: surging demand for avocados. A turf war has erupted over a 180-acre (73-hectare) avocado farm near Amboseli, one of Kenya’s premier national parks, where elephants and other wildlife graze against the striking backdrop of Africa’s highest peak.

Opponents of the farm say it obstructs the free movement of iconic tuskers like Tolstoy — putting their very existence at risk — and clashes with traditional ways of using the land.

The farm’s backers refute this, saying their development poses no threat to wildlife and generates much-needed jobs on idle land. The rift underscores a broader struggle for dwindling resources that echoes beyond Kenya, as wilderness is constricted by expanding farmland to feed a growing population.

Kenya is a major avocado grower and exports have soared as the green superfood has become a hipster staple on cafe menus around the globe. Already the sixth-largest supplier to Europe, Kenya’s avocado exports rose 33 percent to $127 million (107 million euros) in the year to October 2020, according to the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya.

– Green gold –

In the middle of that bumper year, Kenyan agribusiness KiliAvo Fresh Ltd received approval from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to start its own avocado farm on land it purchased from local Masai owners.

The acreage was razed of shrubbery and fenced off, alarming neighbouring title holders and conservation groups. They argued that large-scale agriculture was prohibited in that location under management plans governing land use in the area. In September, under pressure to revoke KiliAvo’s license, NEMA ordered them to stop work while it reviewed the case.

The company challenged that decision in Kenya’s environmental tribunal, where a case is ongoing. KiliAvo’s lawyers, CM Advocates LLP, did not reply to request for comment in time for publication. But work at the farm has progressed at a clip.

On a recent morning, beneath a snow-capped Kilimanjaro, farmhands laid irrigation lines to water rows of avocado saplings. The property has water tanks, a shaded nursery, and boreholes. Jeremiah Shuaka Saalash, a KiliAvo shareholder and farm manager, said the farm had “rescued” many tourist workers left jobless when nearby safari lodges closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said there was room for both industries to thrive, pointing out that a bigger farm was already harvesting vegetables nearby. “I am championing for the co-existence of wildlife, and for us to have another source of income,” Saalash told AFP, as tractors tilled the red soil.

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