by Nick Perry
Immediately after dawn, Tolstoy began to show. A wandering giant, with its tusks barely scraping the ground, this mighty elephant roamed under Mount Kilimanjaro for nearly 50 years.
It has survived ivory hunting, spear attacks, and a terrible drought, but the mighty bull may face a new threat to its natural world: the growing demand for avocados.
War broke out over 180 acres (73 ha) avocado Farm near Amboseli, one of Kenya’s premier National parks, Where elephants and other wildlife graze against the astonishing backdrop of Africa’s highest peak.
Opponents of the farm say it impedes the free movement of famous canines like Tolstoy – endangering their very existence – and clashes with traditional ways of using the land.
The farm’s backers refute this, saying their development poses no threat to wildlife and creates much-needed jobs in unfit land.
The rift underscores a broader struggle for dwindling resources reverberating outside Kenya, as wilderness is restricted by expanding farmland to feed Population growth.
Kenya is a major grower of avocado, and exports have skyrocketed as green foods become a favorite on coffee shop menus around the world.
Already the sixth largest supplier to Europe, Kenya’s avocado exports rose 33 percent to $ 127 million (€ 107 million) in the year ending October 2020, according to the Kenya Fresh Exporters Association.
In the middle of that bumper year, Kenyan agricultural company KiliAvo Fresh Ltd secured approval from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to start its own avocado farm on land it bought from local Masai owners.
The land was razed from the bushes and fenced off, much to the concern of nearby title holders Conservation groups.
They argued that large-scale farming is prohibited on this site under administration plans governing land use in the area.
In September, under pressure to revoke KiliAvo’s license, NEMA ordered them to stop operating while reviewing the case.
The company has appealed this decision in an environmental court in Kenya, where the case is still pending. KiliAvo’s attorneys, CM Advocates LLP, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
But work on the farm is presented in a clip.
One morning, under the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, farm workers set up irrigation lines to irrigate rows of avocado seedlings. The property has water tanks, shaded nursery and wells.
Jeremiah Shuaka Saalash, a KiliAvo shareholder and farm manager, said the farm has “saved” many tourist workers who were left out of work when nearby safari lodges closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
There was room for both industries to flourish, he said, noting that a larger farm was already harvesting vegetables nearby.
“I am advocating for coexistence between wildlife and for us to have another source of income,” Salach told AFP while the tractors were tilling the red soil.
Avocado or elephants?
The surrounding landowners and wildlife experts insist the two cannot exist side by side.
They say elephants have already collided with KiliAvo’s electric fence – evidence that it impedes migratory routes used by an estimated 2,000 tusks as they leave Amboseli for surrounding lands to breed and find water and pasture.
“Can you imagine if the elephants in Amboseli would die of starvation so that people in Europe could eat avocados?” Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahombo, chair of the Wildlife Direct campaign group, told AFP.
The revenue from Kenya’s thriving avocado trade is just a small picture compared to tourism, which generated $ 1.6 billion in 2019.
Critics warn that letting KiliAvo move forward would set a dangerous precedent for an already stressful ecosystem and watch with interest other agricultural prospectors.
Billboards appearing in Kimana, a fast-growing town near Amboseli, allude to the development underway.
Tolstoy, and other wildlife large and small, are already competing with cars to cross into the Kimana Reserve, a crucial link between Amboseli, the surrounding grasslands, and habitats further afield in Tsavo Parks and Cheolo Hills.
“If we continue to do so, Amboseli National Park will die,” said Daniel Ole Sampo of the Big Life Foundation, a local environmental group.
“These elephants … will go, and the park will end. This means that tourism in this region will collapse.”
Traditional landowners say they have not been adequately consulted about the proposal, and have warned that artificial irrigation, especially for crops notoriously thirsty like avocados, would add to the stress of a drought-prone ecosystem.
The majority of the Maasai around Kiliavu agreed to keep their lands open so that wildlife as well as livestock – the lifeblood of the herding community – could roam freely.
Samuel Kanke, president of an association of 342 property rights holders whose lands surround KiliAvo, said plantations and fences threatened the unfettered movement the Masai had enjoyed for generations.
Maasai culture will completely disappear. “We will lose our way of life,” he told AFP.
Kahombo said commercial farming in Kenya had become “more dangerous to animals than poaching” and urged supermarkets abroad to know what they were buying.
She cited British grocery giant Tesco, which in October severed ties with a major Kenyan avocado farm accused of workplace abuse.
“You can’t call growing avocado in a wilderness area like this sustainable,” Kahombo said.