Tolstoy, a 49-year-old elephant considered to have the longest tusks in the Amboseli ecosystem, grazes at the Kimana Sanctuary. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] 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 $127m in the year to October 2020, according to the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya.
A turf war has erupted over a 180-acre avocado farm near one of Kenya’s premier national parks, where elephants and other wildlife graze against the striking backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] In 2020 Kenyan agribusiness KiliAvo Fresh Ltd received approval from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to start its own avocado farm on land in Kimana, southern Kenya it purchased from local Masai owners. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] A worker removes weeds along the electric fence at KiliAvo Fresh Ltd’s farm in Kimana. The acreage was razed of shrubbery and fenced off, alarming neighbouring title holders and conservation groups who argued that large-scale agriculture was banned in that location under management plans governing land use in the area. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] In September 2020, under pressure to revoke KiliAvo’s licence, 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 continuing, and work at the farm has progressed. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] 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. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] Masai men bringing goats to a livestock market to sell in Kimana. Traditional landowners say they were inadequately consulted about the proposal and warn industrial irrigation, especially for notoriously thirsty crops like avocados, would further strain the drought-prone ecosystem. The majority of Masai around KiliAvo’s farm agreed to keep their land open so that wildlife but also cattle – the lifeblood of their herding community – could roam free. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] Zebras cross the road which has a 70 metre-long electric-fence free area for all animals as their corridor in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. Wildlife already competes with cars to cross into Kimana Sanctuary, a crucial link between Amboseli, surrounding rangelands and habitats further beyond in Tsavo and Chyulu Hills parks. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] Critics warn that allowing KiliAvo to proceed would set a dangerous precedent for an already stressed ecosystem being keenly eyed by other farming prospectors. “If we continue like this, Amboseli National Park will be dead,” said Daniel Ole Sambu from the Big Life Foundation, a local conservation group. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] A general view of elephants grazing at Kimana Sanctuary. Adjacent landowners and wildlife experts say elephants have already collided with KiliAvo’s electric fence – proof that it impedes migratory routes used by an estimated 2,000 tuskers as they depart Amboseli into surrounding lands to breed and find water and pasture. “Can you imagine if elephants in Amboseli died of starvation so that people in Europe can eat avocados?” Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu, who heads the campaign group WildlifeDirect, said. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP] Elephants graze at Kimana Sanctuary. The revenue from Kenya’s booming avocado business is minute compared to tourism, which reaped $1.6bn in 2019. Critics warn allowing KiliAvo to proceed would set a dangerous precedent for an already stressed ecosystem being keenly eyed by other farming prospectors. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]