Shortly after sunrise, Tolstoy comes into view. This wandering giant is a wandering giant whose tusks are almost scratching the earth. He has been roaming beneath Mount Kilimanjaro for nearly 50 years.
He has survived ivory poachers, spear attacks, and terrible drought, but the mighty bull may face a new thr𝚎𝚊t to his natural realm: the increasing demand for avocados.
A turf war has broken out on a 180-acre (73-hectare) avocado farm near Amboseli, one of Kenya’s most important national parks. Elephants and other wildlife graze against the impressive backdrop of the highest peak in Africa.
Opponents of the farm say it hinders the free movement of legendary tusks like Tolstoy – which thr𝚎𝚊tens their very existence – and conflicts with traditional land-use methods.
The farm’s supporters disprove this, saying that its development poses no thr𝚎𝚊t to wildlife and creates much-needed wasteland jobs.
The rift underscores a broader struggle for dwindling resources beyond Kenya as wilderness is constrained by expanding arable land to feed a growing population.
Kenya is a significant avocado grower, and exports have increased as the green superfood has become a staple on cafe menus worldwide.
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.
In the middle of this bumper year, Kenyan agribusiness KiliAvo Fresh Ltd received approval from the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) to set up its avocado farm on land it had bought from local Masai owners.
The cultivation area was cleared from the shrubbery and fenced off, which alerted neighboring titleholders and nature conservation groups.
They argued that large-scale agriculture was prohibited as part of land use management plans in the area.
Under pressure to revoke KiliAvo’s license, NEMA ordered them to stop working in September while investigating the case.
The company has appealed that decision to the Kenyan environmental court, where one case is pending. KiliAvo’s attorneys, CM Advocates LLP, did not respond to the request for comment in time for publication.
But the work on the farm has evolved in a clip.
One recent morning farmworkers laid irrigation lines under snow-covered Mount Kilimanjaro to water rows of avocado seedlings. The property has water tanks, a shaded nursery, and boreholes.
Jeremiah Shuaka Saalash, a KiliAvo shareholder and farm manager, said the farm “saved” many tourist workers who were unemployed when nearby safari lodges closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
He said there was room for both industries to thrive, pointing out that a larger farm is already harvesting vegetables nearby.
“I am committed to the coexistence of wildlife and for us to have another source of income,” Saalash told AFP as tractors were working on the red soil.
– Avocados or elephants? – –
Neighboring landowners and wildlife experts firmly believe the two cannot coexist.
It is said that elephants have already collided with KiliAvo’s electric fence – evidence that it hinders the migration routes of an estimated 2,000 tusks as they leave Amboseli for the surrounding areas to breed and find water and pastures.
“Can you imagine elephants starving to d𝚎𝚊th in Amboseli so that people in Europe could eat avocados?” Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu, who runs the Wildlife Direct campaign group, told AFP.
Revenue from the booming avocado business in Kenya is a blip compared to tourism, which grossed $ 1.6 billion in 2019.
Critics warn that allowing KiliAvo to proceed would set a dangerous precedent for an already stressed ecosystem that other agricultural prospectors keenly eye are closely watching.
Billboards advertising land in Kimana, a fast-growing township near Amboseli, hint at the development afoot.
Tolstoy and other wildlife, large and small, are already competing with cars to get to the Kimana Sanctuary, a vital link between Amboseli, the surrounding rangelands, and habitats in the Tsavo and Chyulu Hills parks.
“If we continue like this, Amboseli National Park will be dead,” said Daniel Ole Sambu of the Big Life Foundation, a local conservation group.
“These elephants… will go, and the park will be finished. And that would mean tourism in this area would collapse.”
– Way of life –
Traditional landowners say they have received insufficient consultation on the proposal and warn industrial irrigation, especially on notoriously thirsty crops like avocados, further straining the drought-prone ecosystem.
The majority of the Maasai in the area around KiliAvo agreed to keep their land open so that wild animals and cattle – the lifeblood of their herding community – can roam freely.
Farms and fences have thr𝚎𝚊tened the carefree movement of the Maasai for generations, said Samuel Kaanki, the leader of an association of 342 titleholders whose land surrounds KiliAvo.
“The culture Maasai will be completely lost. We will lose our way of life,” he told AFP.
Kahumbu said commercial farming in Kenya has become “far more dangerous to animals than poaching” and urged overseas supermarkets to know what they were buying.
She pointed to British food giant Tesco, which in October severed ties with a large Kenyan avocado plantation accused of workplace abuse.
“In a wilderness like this, avocado farming cannot be called sustainable,” said Kahumbu.