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Elephants, Humans Face Off Over Limited Resources in Kenya

At a Nairobi-based orphanage for baby elephants, the animals are seen as lovable beasts in desperate need of protection. But across Kenya, adult elephants are better known as overgrown garden pests that trample and terrified. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, the elephant is at the center of a bitter competition over land and resources.

"This one half his ear is gone. Somebody cut off the ears, we don't know for what reason, we just found her bleeding. This one has a sore ear. That was caused by sunburn. But it will heal? Yeah, it will heal," said a guide.

At the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage outside Nairobi, American tourists dote over a clutch of baby elephants, no more than a few feet high, who nuzzle them and look for affection. A ranger named Julius answers their questions and assures them the elephants will be OK.

These tourists have adopted the elephants under a program that funds the orphanage, which raises abandoned elephants and then releases them into the wild when they are old enough

Daphne Sheldrick runs the orphanage. She says elephants are peaceful animals, loving and friendly, who have been brutally slaughtered for years, particularly in two of Kenya's biggest parks, Tsavo East and West.

"One has to understand that elephants by nature are very peaceful animals. You never see animals attacking any other species with whom they exist peacefully in a natural situation," said Sheldrick. "With elephants you reap what you sow and they've been severely persecuted by humans because of the ivory trade. I mean the population in Tsavo went from 45,000 to 6,000 in three decades of absolute holocaust of poaching."

But that notion isn't shared by everyone in Kenya, especially people who farm the kind of foods that elephants enjoy, such as bananas and corn. Elephants are capable of consuming several hundred pounds of food and at least 30 gallons of water a day.

Even when they passed here they will just push and the bananas will fall, they have stripped everything.

Stephen Nteetu, a Masai landowner south of Nairobi, walks walks through an orchard he had planted with banana and maize. It now lies in ruins just days after elephants swept through and devoured it.

"All this place it was finished by the elephants. From home up to here, stripped for only two days so I have to start another new irrigation and planting and I have to pay a person to dig for me, to water, and definitely during one night it will be stripped all over, so it is a very deep loss," said Nteetu.

That anger is being aired in a national debate this year, as Kenya conducts a new review of its wildlife policy, unchanged since the 1970s. The policy failed to take into account a booming human population that has encroached on the country's national parks and erected towns in the middle of wildlife migration routes.

Aside from elephants and rhinoceros, wildlife numbers are down. The country is waiting for a new land-use policy that could bring order to what has been the chaotic subdivision and sale of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat for tea cultivation, flower farms, and scattered plots.

David Western, a conservationist and the former chief of Kenya's Wildlife Service says conflict between humans and wildlife, and particularly elephants, is on the rise, sparking a backlash.

"The conflict by everyone's reckoning has gotten worse. The bushmeat trade has run wider and deeper, which is an expression that people don't have any other value for wildlife," said Western. "The number of people certainly confronting conflict with elephants is very much still on the increase. I think the sentiment of many landowners is, unless we have some value over wildlife, we're going to call in poachers and get rid of it."

At the same time, the law has stripped people of the right to kill problem animals themselves, and punishment for doing so can include prison time. Yet if an elephant, a lion or a buffalo kills a person, the victim's relatives receive just 30,000 Kenyan shillings, about $400, if they get anything at all. There is no compensation for destruction of livestock or crops.

That has made some increasingly angry.

Yusuf Ole Petenya, the secretary of the Shompole Community Trust, says the fate of people has been ignored as conservation groups and activists push to highlight the plight of animals across the region including elephants.

"If one elephant is killed they will quickly take a photo of that, put it on their Web site and say we have a huge crisis, this is only one, this is only the tip of the iceberg, we have many of them being killed," said Petenya. "But what about, why don't you take a picture equally of a guy who's been killed by a buffalo, or by an elephant, or take 10 cows killed by one lion, carcasses, and say this guy has been reduced to a pauper?"

That's not likely to happen anytime soon. Tourism, a leading engine of the Kenyan economy, is booming. It comprises more than 20 percent of the government's annual income. For now, it seems that when it comes to the battle for resources, attention and publicity, the animals win.