Elephants are pushing down trees of savanna

What should be done to protect the biodiversity?
View to Lumo from Lions Bluff Hotel 2008 and 2019. Change in tree cover due to elephants is significant and leads to loss of biodiversity. Trees are habitats for many insects, birds need trees for nest sites and many herbivores are browsers during dry season.

Elephants in Tsavo and Lumo were severy poached, hunted for ivory for decades. Elephant poaching is less severe in many areas of Kenya at the moment, but it happens, as can be seen from orphan stories from Sheldric foundation. Drought and human wildlife conflict are also common reasons for baby elephant to be orphaned.

Baby orphan in Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi.

This article explains reasons behind worsening drought and human wildlife conflict in Taita area Kenya. What are consequences to the savanna, and also what could and should be done for protection of all species, humans, and local way of life.

Elephant herd just outside Lumo Latika gate March 2018. Brown coloring comes from the soil.

Kenya does not allow trophy hunting for money like some other African countries. Sometimes elephants are transported to other areas when there are too many elephants in certain area. I personally value and respect Kenya for this.

In 2018 there was 18500 elephants in Tsavo and number is increasing.

Elephants that are living in Tsavo and Lumo area still show some fearful behaviors that were caused by poaching. Most large males don’t react to people or cars, but many herds with small baby elephants begin to walk away, sometimes running, when humans are approaching.

Very tiny baby elephant in Lumo March 2018. Dead trees are everywhere

Trees are pushed down by elephants

Increasing numbers of elephants are devastating to trees during dry season. Hungry and thirsty animals push the trees down. There has been dramatic change in the tree cover of savanna during just last 10 years, as can be seen in the image above.

Conversation with local rangers or other conservation people always goes for the trees, and worry about what is happening to the savanna as trees are vanishing. People love elephants and having healthy elephant population is great pride.

Elephants were hit so hard by people during worse poaching years, that it is wonderful to see the return of these majestic, emotional and intelligent animals. However, we also need to help savanna to stay inhabitable for the elephants and all other savanna lifeforms.

Tsavo and Lumo are fenced by tall electric fence. (Although I have never seen electricity running in it.) I have countless time seen how impalas jump through the fence to go browsing outside the Lumo area. Fence keeps elephants in the conservation areas up to certain point. However nothing stops elephants, if they are really going for it.

Human wildlife conflict between humans and elephants leads to loss of harvest and sometimes also loss of human lives. Local people can truly lose everything they have when elephants raide their farm.

Orphan from Bura orphanage, his mom was killed by elephants as she was protecting the crop.

Elephants may also be killed or poisoned during these raids to farms. Baby elephants may be separated from their mothers during the chaos when whole village chases elephants out of the fields. This is how human-wildlife conflict creates elephant orphans.

Maktao, (born 2017) orphaned by human wildlife conflict close to Maktau. He was rescued by Lumo ranger Dennis Kironge. Maktao is being looked after by Sheldric Foundation in Tsavo.

Forests of Taita Hills were replaced by farms, causing reduction in rainfall and scarcity of water

Reason why elephants become so thirsty and hungry is also related to changes in land use patterns and growth of human population. Surrounding Taita Hills is densely inhabited and old, about 30 million year old forests have been changed into fields for farming. Population growth has forced people to cultivate areas that are not very suitable for cultivation, like steep hills and areas with poor soil, or too dry areas. Fields and villages don’t attract rainwater like indigenous forest. When it rains, water runs down quickly.

Daphne Sheldric describes in her magnificent book An African Love Story, how during the most intense clearing time of Taita Hills elephants were drowning in to mud in Tsavo as soil from Taita Hills were flushed down from the hills! They were saving elephants by pulling them from the mud by cars.

Rivers bringing water to lowland savanna areas are born in Taita Hills. These old mountains used to be covered with forests – 30 million year old ancient forest. Biodiversity of those forests were incredible. During last 100 years almost all forests have been cleared for fields or forests have been replaced by exotic trees, like eucalyptus that cause even more drought. Now there is not much water left for savannas.

Now conflicts about water are common between people, and many people face difficult time during dry season, when community wells are far away.

Remnants of indigenous forests are called water towers, their significance for attracting rainwater is now understood. However 98 % of these forests have been destroyed, most during last 100 years.

When there is not enough water for people, there is even less for wildlife during dry season.

So current issue of lack of water during dry season is more severe because there is less water to begin with, and also less space for the elephants.

Hungry and thirsty elephants push trees down.

Dead trees are everywhere in Lumo March 2018. Kilimanjaro can be seen behind elephant family.

When trees disappear, biodiversity dives down

Loss of trees lead to loss of biodiversity as trees are habitats for countless insects, that are consumed by birds, that also use trees as nest sites. Large vultures and eagles need large trees. Many antelopes, like impalas, kudus, duikers, eland, and gazelles also feed on leaved during dry season when grass becomes yellow and low in nutrients. During this time leaves of many trees stay green as root system enables trees to gather water deeper from the soil. Giraffes and gerenuks are dependent on trees. Also black rhino is a browser, so in order to keep savannas good for return of black rhino, there must be trees.

Giraffes are dependent of trees, Masai Mara August 2018.

Water buffalo and hartebeest are fine with just eating grass, and there is abundant populations of both in Lumo.

Hardebeest in Lumo August 2018

Keeping trees in the savanna is important for biodiversity as all these species have intrinsic value on their own. However in Lumo people are also worried for loss of biodiversity as less animals will mean less income. As Lumo is community owned and income is spread with 5000 local people, this is extremely important for them. Most of income Lumo is bringing to local community is used for school fees, for children who could not other wise go to school at all. Will tourists come if many species disappear with trees?

How to help elephants and savanna

Mwalua Wildlife Trust http://www.mwaluawildlifetrust.org works actively to distribute water for the wildlife during dry season, and is also engaged in many other activities that help elephants and other wildlife and also mitigate human wildlife conflict. Mwalua Wildlife Trust in Facebook https://www.facebook.com/mwaluawildlifetrust/.

Sheldric Foundation takes care of baby elephants and releases them to Tsavo. Baby elephant, like Maktao here, can be adopted for 50 dollars a year. https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/orphans

There is also reforestation project in Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, that belongs to Sarova Hotel. This is fenced area, that was established about 2009. Areas where reforestation takes place, need to be fenced and trees need to be watered during dry season, otherwise trees will die. This makes reforestation much more expansive, as it requires expensive fencing and long term labour.

Trees inside fenced area in Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. There are abundant bird and insect fauna.

However, fence can be moved once trees are large enough to stand on their own.

Biodiversity in the enclosed area is significantly higher than right outside the fence. I have spent a day there observing insects and birds, while geographers I was with were identifying and measuring trees. Also view from higher place shows that areas outside conservation areas are growing trees and bushes.

Large enterprices could use their carbon footprint compensations for reforestations of savannas.

To keep savanna biodiversity and elephant populations healthy in current situation where water and space is limited for elephants reforestation is needed.

Large companies, including e.g. airline companies, are planting trees to compensate their carbon emissions. This would be excellent way to solve problem of elephants causing loss of biodiversity.

Fenced reforestation areas should be used and fence should be relocated in about 15 years as trees grow to keep savanna biodiversity.

Categories:All posts, SavannasTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Have you heard of bee hive elephant fencing? That is the method we are using on our carbon credit planting projects in Narok.


    It’s more effective than electric fence, and the honey provides income and nutrition. We’re all about those harmonious solutions!

    Would love to connect with you.

  2. Thank you Alyssa for your message! I know about bee hives, they are trying them in some areas in Taita. It is great way to prevent damages caused by elephants. I look forward hearing more about your great projects in reforestation! I know that there are plans in Lumo to do reforestation as well. What makes it more expensive is the fence that has to be build around the seedlings, so that trees have change to grow. Best wishes

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