Lewa's Elephant Underpass

Leaving the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is bittersweet. As I anticipate the journey toward new experiences in the Kenyan landscape, I lose myself in the memories of the majestic animals I leave behind. Lost in reverie, I jolt back to reality as my Jeep pulls off to the side of the Nanyuki-Meru Highway to witness a family of elephants passing under us, headed toward the Mount Kenyan forests.

This Elephant Underpass is a small but critical piece of Lewa’s larger Elephant Corridor, and a creative solution to a unique predicament: in 2010, as the elephant population on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy increased, the sanctuary struggled to sustain the 300kg daily diet of grass and shrubbery each animal consumes. Unable to find enough grass, the inadvertently destructive elephants wandered off the Conservancy, causing devastating crop loss to neighboring subsistence farmers. These elephant/human clashes forced many farmers to resort to violent measures to protect their livelihood. Without an intervention, the lives of both man and animal were in jeopardy.

Bringing harmony to the region, the Elephant Corridor began in 2010 as a plan to re-establish a centuries-old migratory route connecting the Samburu elephants from Mount Marsabit and the ones from Mount Kenya. It took combined efforts from the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and a number of local conservation and farming organizations to create a path connecting the 2,000 isolated elephants on Mount Kenya with the 7,500 living in the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem. Organizers hoped this route would alleviate the human-wildlife conflict in the area while improving the health and genetic diversity of the species. 

This million-dollar project met a literal roadblock when planners realized completion of the corridor would require the construction of a concrete underpass underneath the Nanyuki-Meru Highway. Professionals were skeptical of the elephants’ willingness and understanding to walk through a concrete tunnel, so they planned dozens of strategies to coax them through. As the project neared completion at the end of 2010, it became apparent that no prodding would be necessary as local elephants gathered in the area, seemingly anticipating the new road ahead. On New Year’s Day 2011, a bull elephant named Tony led two other elephants through the underpass, eventually becoming the first elephant to travel the entire corridor.

In addition to reuniting and strengthening the local elephant populations, the corridor and underpass have made a significant impact on the surrounding community. Three teams patrol the area, apprehending poachers and planting trees in barren areas to shade the elephants as they travel. In addition to the thousands of elephants traveling the corridor each year, many zebra, rhinoceros, and other local animals benefit from the patrol units—poaching levels across species are at their lowest in six years. Now that their crops and families are safe from errant elephants, local farmers have rallied together to combat destructive poaching and logging and preserve the beauty of their landscape.

Tony’s initial journey through the Underpass and along the Corridor was the first of many for this population and community, but there is still much work to be done. Predator-proof wildlife fences bordering the corridor require constant maintenance and repairs. An additional underpass is still needed under a smaller road. Increased security must be put in place to combat poaching. Help support the persistence of the Samburu elephant population and its peaceful interaction with the people of northern Kenya by donating directly to Lewa or purchasing a print from my Lewa Collection.

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