On a hot day in Tsavo, Galgalo sits among his peers while the simmering hours away. The top agenda of their discussion this afternoon is the number of elephants each has slain in their lifetime. Galgalo’s toll supersedes everyone else’s. Hunting elephants for game meat has, sadly, for eons been the way of life for his Watha community, known by another name The Elephant People. Things have, however, not been usual this past decade as there have been concerns over the rapid rateat which elephant numbers keep dwindling with each passing day.
The Watha is an indigenous Cushitic group that has for centuries lived in close proximity to the wild. They are found in the biodiversity-rich, forested hills of Kilibasi in Kwale County, Coastal forests including the Arabuko Sokoke, parts of Kilifi, Marsabit, Lamu, and Tana River in Kenya. Theirs is a story that started in the 1950s when the area they called home was hived off to create the current Tsavo East National Park. Whereas the government’s need for conservation was met, the Watha community was left in limbo as their dependence on bushmeat, honey, and firewood, was dealt a huge blow.
The struggle to adapt new ways to survive therefore began in earnest, a journey that took a toll on them because of a deeply ingrained belief that the life of elephants in Tsavo was intertwined with their fate. According to the Watha story of God’s creation, elephant dung is a partial fulfillment of the sacred covenant between their society and the elephant. This, they posit, explains their intimate knowledge of the bush, from the ability to describe the peculiar behavior of individual
elephants to navigating both their paths and that of other animals with ease.
One of the traditional Watha practices includes cultural dances performed after every successful elephant hunt, denoted by triumphal songs to praise the elephant for feeding their community. For the sake of herd continuity, hunters like Galgalo were only allowed to prey on bull elephants as it was an abomination to kill female elephants for food. Apart from the meat, elephant tusks were used for a bride price or for
barter trade in exchange for cloth, tools, and ornaments.st about.
Things are different now as the government continues to step up measures geared toward the conservation of natural resources. What was initially a source of community pride and nourishment is now synonymous with arrests, detainment, and imprisonment. Left without alternative means of livelihood, the Watha have been struggling to adapt to a new way of life through subsistence farming on small tracts of land. This has seen the population of the once robust community drop exponentially as climate changes, poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment ravage The Elephant People. But all is not lost.
Their one-time vast knowledge of the bush is slowly being replaced with formal education, and the pen has overtaken their prowess with the spear. It has been a journey of discovery, new frontiers, and opening eyes to a new world; it is expected to bring forth a new generation that will protect rather than maim or kill game animals. With each new dawn, Galgalo and his ilk will have to slowly but surely find new
topics to discuss at their under-the-rock meetings, as keepinglists of elephants killed will no longer be something to boastabout.