Kenya Elephant Census Reveals Photos of Illegal Charcoal Production

Dr. Mike Chase peered out the window of the small Cessna, flying low of the south-western Tsavo National Park in Kenya. In the distance he could see the large plumes of smoke rising from hundreds of home-built kilns in the bush.

Mike was in the midst of the Kenya leg of The Great Elephant Census, a Paul Allen initiative, a massive research project that will survey elephant and wildlife populations within the elephant ranges of 22 African countries. But what started out as an exercise in counting wildlife is now revealing a shocking emergence of illegal coal production in the south-western Tsavo region.

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Cessna in flight during the Great Elephant Census. Photo Kelly Landen of Elephants Without Borders

Mike recalls:

The clay kilns themselves are marvels of African architectural ingenuity and labour. I looked down at them and thought about their impact on the environment I was flying over. I could see the influence of ‘their’ work quite clearly from my vantage point – massive areas of acacia woodland have been denuded– but I gazed down on them and their work with respect and empathy. The hard working people I saw below me must be turning a good profit to struggle like this. But vast tracts of acacia woodland have been deforested. I was disturbed by this destruction, and the silence from my observers who should be yelling out wildlife observations.

It was only until Mike and the Elephants Without Borders team landed that they learned more about the practice of coal production in Kenya. Officials informed them that many of these coal producers are illegal immigrants from Somalia, cashing in on what has become a lucrative industry in Kenya and Somalia.

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A charcoal camp in south western Tsavo region. Photo by Elephants Without Borders

Just recently, reports have emerged that Islamist terrorist group Al Shabaab are fuelling the illegal charcoal industry in Kenya in order to fund their terrorist activities. Ivory poachers, feeling threatened by tougher security measures in Kenya, are now turning to illegal charcoal trade as a means of income. And this million-dollar industry is having a devastating effect on Kenya’s biodiversity.

The images below, taken by the Elephants Without Borders team, may or may not be connected to this trade, but remain stark proof of an emerging environmental and social issue that needs to be addressed in Kenya.

Temporary camps hidden under acacia scrub litter the landscape
Temporary camps hidden under acacia scrub litter the landscape
The process begins by gathering wood and making a tight bed to eventually burn
The process begins by gathering wood and making a tight bed to eventually burn
Wood bed
Wood bed
Next step is the wood bed is covered with thick soil
Next step is the wood bed is covered with thick soil
It’s labour intensive, hard work, having to withstand very poor living conditions
The smoldering bed acts like a kiln, slowly burning the covered, now compressing wood into charcoal
The smoldering bed acts like a kiln, slowly burning the covered, now compressing wood into charcoal
The end result is gathered, bagged and eventually brought out of the field
The end result is gathered, bagged and eventually brought out of the field to be traded. Where will these bags end up? The scale of the production suggests this is more than just a few men trying to carve a living. Photo by Elephants Without Borders
A Tsavo Elephant Herd. The actual subject of this intensive study. Photo by Elephants Without Borders
A Tsavo elephant herd. The actual subject of this intensive study. Photo by Elephants Without Borders

Wildlife

Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: paul@paulsteyn.com Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram