Seated on a low reclining chair at the balcony of his house in Mabomani village, Mr Benjamin Mwangi is the epitome of calmness. Nothing in his face suggests that a fortnight ago, he escaped death by a whisker after a nightmarish near-death tangle with an enraged mother elephant.
Only a pair of crutches carefully placed against a wall, within his arms’ reach, betrays that all might not be well. “I was a dead man. God came to my rescue,” he starts slowly, a distant look in his eyes. Then a ghost of an easy smile flitters across his lips and he chuckles.
“The villagers are now calling me the jumbo man,” he jokes massaging a bruise on the left side of his head. He shifts his body, winces with pain and grits his teeth before settling back on his seat, calm again.
In the world of conservation, few men have found themselves trapped underneath the legs of an enraged elephant and survived to tell of the encounter. Mr Mwangi, a father of four and a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) honorary warden in Voi sub-county is an exception.
His story runs like a script of an action movie.
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On a cloudy Monday morning on June 5, he had just stepped into his bathroom when loud noises and shouts erupted from outside. From the first floor of his residential house, he often has a panoramic view of the surrounding region.
He peeked out of the small bathroom window. Hundreds of residents from Sikujua and Mabomani villages were driving a fully-grown elephant with her calf away from the area. Children, women and youths were screaming at the huge beast while hurling stones and twigs at the visibly enraged jumbo.
Occasionally, the animal would turn and trumpet angrily, sending the villagers scattering in panic. The villagers would later re-group and continue their foolhardy expedition, oblivious of the mortal peril they were in.
Mr Mwangi’s training and commitment as a warden kicked in. He jumped into a pair of shorts and slipped into an ill-fitting t-shirt. A licensed firearm holder, he grabbed a shotgun and raced down the stairs while his wife rushed to call for reinforcement from KWS rangers based at Tsavo East National Park headquarters, some few kilometres away.
In retrospect, he says he does not regret walking out of his house to help the villagers. “I couldn’t sit back and watch helpless villagers go after a mother elephant with her baby. That was a catastrophe waiting to happen,” says the burly warden on his decision to join the residents arguing that the villagers were unaware of the great danger they were in when provoking an elephant with her calf.
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Once outside, he had a hectic time convincing villagers, especially women and children, to abandon their perilous quest and return to their homes. The crowd was too charged to listen to his warnings. The residents wanted to ‘stone the elephant to death’ for raiding their farms.
After long minutes of frantic appeals, sanity finally prevailed and a large section of the villagers went back to their homes. However, a small group remained. The warden volunteered to lead in driving away the elephant back to Tsavo East National Park. This would help him buy time until more experienced and better-equipped KWS rangers arrived.
Accompanied by a group of ten young men, they trailed the mother and her calf who were now trudging along the electric fence in search of a gap to get back in protected area. When the jumbo showed signs of turning back into settlement areas, Mwangi would fire warning shots in the air to keep it along the fence.
A most terrifying sight
The elephant and its calf was finally cornered into a bushy area at the farthest point in Mabomani village. It would be easy for rangers to find a way to drive the jumbo and her calf back to the park. Mr. Mwangi’s work was done. Or so he thought.
He slung his rifle on his shoulder and started walking back home. He had barely walked fifty meters when panicky screams from the youth who had accompanied him split the air. They were gesticulating wildly pointing at a spot behind him.
The warden turned and met a most terrifying sight. The mother jumbo he had thought was hiding in the bush was charging full-tilt towards him; bearing down on his like a wraith from his darkest fears.
At the sight of the flared ears, the maddened trumpeting, the small dark eyes mad with fury, panic immobilised him for a moment. Then he was free and survival instincts kicked in. He took to his heels. And tripped.
He scrambled up again and just when he was about to flee again, a tuft of grass caught his foot. He fell again. As he attempted to rise the third time, the angry jumbo was already upon him.
Keening with fury, the elephant gored him on the left thigh and hurled him high in the air. He landed on the ground on his left flank. His body exploded in numbing agony.
Medical X-ray report from the hospital would later show the fall snapped four ribs on his left flank and three on the right. Barely conscious, the warden desperately rolled on his back with hands raised to shield his head.
That probably saved his life as his hands instinctively pushed away the jumbo’s front right leg that would have landed on his face. Instead, the massive leg grazed his forehead and his right ear. In all this chaos, his rifle was nowhere to be found.
Hurled into the air
Mr Mwangi was now trapped under the elephant which was trying to whirl around to gore him again. When the jumbo lowered its head, the warden gripped the tusks and clung on for dear life. The elephant attempted to shake him off but he tenaciously held on.
Unable to dislodge him from its tusks, it lifted him up and smashed him on the ground in anger. “It broke my pelvic bone and dislocated a hip joint but I didn’t let go,” narrates the warden.
In a final move, the elephant hurled him into a plantation of young bamboos where he landed on his back; still conscious but too broken to move. Had the elephant charged again, he says he is not sure whether he would have found strength to fight it again.
Luckily, the jumbo seemed to be done with him. The young men who had been watching from a distance rushed to the scene and dragged him away. KWS rangers would arrive moments later and took down the elephant that had already killed one woman.
Mr Mwangi was rushed to St Joseph Hospital in Ikanga for stabilisation before he was transferred to Mombasa for specialised treatment. He would insist on being discharged a week later, saying the hospital was too restrictive for his kind of life. “Too many rules on being visited. I wanted to be home with my family and friends,” he said.
He is attending specialised clinics for observation on how his wounds are healing. Mr. Mwangi says his miraculous survival was an act of God. He admits that after he tripped, he knew it was all over for him.
Not planning to quit
Having been made a warden in 2015 following his efforts to help farmers in Kirubi and surrounding areas to fight off elephants in farms, he maintains that he did what he had to do. “I have helped drive away elephants from farms for years. I was doing my duty to assist the community and avert a crisis,” he said.
He jokingly said that the elephant must have marked him as he has been chasing rogue jumbos from farms in Kirumbi area for over two years since he was made honorary warden. Despite the near-death encounter with the elephant, Mr Mwangi is not planning to quit.
He however says that a permanent solution to human-wildlife conflict especially for farms adjacent to the national park would be possible if KWS and farmers drafted a commercial agreement over compensation. He adds that KWS should compensate farmers for crops annually while the farmers would in turn act as community scouts to protect the wildlife.