• A coastal wildlife conservatory is turning elephant dung collected from roads into big business
• In the process, it is keeping community wildlife reserve landowners happy, building tree cover and becoming part of a growing Kenyan success story in elephant population recovery
Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary chairman Salim Mwanyongwe is a happy man. The reserve he helps run is increasingly being recognised as a conservation success story.
And so is one of the ecotourism experiment's most important economic activities: the production of elephant dung paper.
"The processed product is sold in Nairobi and exported to neighbouring Tanzania,” Mwanyongwe said of the product produced from elephant dung recovered from the area's roads.
"The facility is community-owned and the entire income generated goes to the community. Most of the country's paper made from dung comes from here."
Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary was established in 1993 from leased land owned by about 4,000 farmers and landowners.
Today, it is a community-owned 36-sq km conservation area for elephants. Located about 45km southwest of Mombasa, the region contains a substantial elephant population, and the sanctuary is part of a key elephant corridor in the eastern part of the country.
"This area contains slightly more than 50 per cent of the country's elephant population," Manyongwe said.
"This encompasses Shimba Hills Reserve and the expansive Tsavo Tsavo Parks, which are the physical size of Belgium."
"Incidents of illegal logging in protected areas around the coastal areas have been reduced as many farmers and land owners have been granted licences by the government to collect the dung. This has led to farmers having a source of income that does not harm the environment."
Coastal Kenya, like parts of Tanzania, Mozambique and Somalia, once had an enormous coastal forest that stretched all along what is today regarded as the Swahili Coast - an area that sees regular, moisture-laden trade winds dumping rain on forested coastal escarpments. Deforestation throughout the region has increased the regularity of droughts and exacerbated floods. Mwanyongwe, through initiatives like the Mwaluganje elephant dung project, is hoping to reverse this trend.
It is a very sustainable way to manufacture paper without any need to cut down trees. People should embrace this technology as it goes a long way in the fight against climate changeBenjamin Ndubi
Benjamin Ndubi, a 30-year-old Nairobi-based entrepreneur who owns a facility in Mombasa that is specially designed to process elephant dung into paper, talked up the initiative.
"It is an industry that has not been fully tapped. There is little competition. Paper made from elephant dung is set to grow within the next few years," he said.
Ndubi buys the dung directly from farmers and turns it into paper, then processes and sells it.
Wildlife authorities only allow the practice in small quantities to minimise negative environmental effects.
This is because elephant dung plays a vital role in the ecosystem, according to Bernard Agwanda, a mammalogist at the National Museums of Kenya.
"Elephant dung is vital for beetles and other insects to survive. If you use it wrongly, you will starve and destabilise the ecosystem. Elephants consume plants and so the energy has to flow back into the soil,” he said.
"So you have to use the dung wisely in small quantities, and that will allow enough time to go back into the soil.
"It is much better than telling farmers to clear their land and plant non-indigenous trees to produce paper. But these two issues differ scientifically and economically.”
Dung is widely used as a fuel in Kenya, with farmers collecting it all and burning it, releasing sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere. Keeping the carbon locked in, in the paper, is a better option, according to Ndubi, as farmers are encouraged to return a part of it to the soil.
Ndubi now worries about competition from wood cut from natural forests, after Kenya recently reversed a ban on logging in the country.
"Paper from elephant dung is of very high quality. There is no physical difference between paper made from timber, bamboo and that derived from elephant dung," he said.
"But with the recent declaration of the government lifting the ban on logging, it may reverse the gains made on conserving the environment. It also may affect my business, one way or the other. But on a positive note, forest cover in the country has increased, as many of us turn to innovative climate adaptation solutions.
A number of Ndubi's customers are the parents of school children looking for speciality paper for their school projects. Others are export-oriented companies.
"The demand of paper never goes down on any day. My customers include company offices, supermarkets and private shops," Ndubi said.
"I also sell a small amount to clients in Tanzania and Rwanda."
The process of turning dung into paper is simple, according to Ndubi. The dung fibres are first washed thoroughly in a vat to ensure they are clean. This removes unwanted particles from the fibres.
"After this extensive process, it is much similar to that of regular paper. Sometimes we opt to mix or recycle with regular paper, but it's not a requirement," Ndubi said.
The dung is manufactured into quality tissue paper and 12 other paper products.
"It is a very sustainable way to manufacture paper without any need to cut down trees. People should embrace this technology as it goes a long way in the fight against climate change,” he said.
The paper-maker said society should be educated on alternative ways of generating wood and timber products, to both prevent further environmental degradation and sustain elephant populations.
"Without elephants, the ecosystem would be so unfriendly. A lot can be gained from elephants," Ndubi said.
"In Asia, in countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, communities are even making paper from rhino waste. I visited those countries a few years ago. We can improve on our existing technologies by improving on them by borrowing from other societies."
Kenya's former Environment Minister, Judy Wakhungu, the initiator of a much-celebrated plastics ban introduced by Kenya in 2017, said she was optimistic that the region, and the world, could still reverse much of the damage.
"I believe we can live in a world where there is no cutting of trees. There are many alternative ways of making paper, even from sugarcane waste and bamboo. Anything green is possible," Wakhungu said.
She was one of the initiators of the ban on logging in 2016. It was recently lifted by the government.
"Society needs more education on sustainable environment practices," said Ndubi, who would like more people to be aware of the choices they have, particularly when it comes to wood products as well as sustainable paper and his elephant dung products.
“The government's recent move to allow logging is a wrong decision. But this technology can employ many people if fully utilised."
When it comes to sustainable practices, including support for environmental initiatives like ecotourism and the protection of trees, the Kenyan government has found that communities have to be an integral part of conservation efforts.
Currently, the country's forest cover, based on data from the Ministry of Environment, stands at 12 per cent. According to experts, at least a third of a country should be covered by forest.
Mwaluganje is helping to accelerate this trend. Landowners have ensured that trees are protected, offering food and shelter to increasing numbers of elephants moving through the sanctuary.
The elephant dung paper is an important component of the park's income, helping to pay leases to farmers and land-owners, ensuring they continue protecting the ecosystem. The paper, according to the park chairman, is a more viable option than other paper.
"They are more affordable than normal paper and they can be potentially recycled and used as paper again," Mwanyongwe said.
The effectiveness of the Mwaluganje model suggests that community ecotourism could be effective elsewhere in the country — and in other parts of Africa, he said.
Economic benefits for the local community include tourism returns on gate fees and other tourist income, in addition to the sales of elephant dung paper, and of honey — another community initiative.
"Obviously, landowners are paid for leasing their land,” Mwanyongwe said.
Philip Katana is a landowner who has leased 32 of his 62 acres of land to Mwaluganje.
"Mwaluganje is a big story. We at first thought when we lease our land, it is being taken away. We were at first hesitant but later we learned of the benefits and we eventually embraced it,” he said.
"We get money from most of the sanctuary activities, including gate fees. We get paid annually and obviously (keep) our land. But we also get high returns on a regular basis from the manufacture and sale of paper products from elephant dung. It’s a peaceful existence with elephants. The economic returns from all these activities are satisfactory."
According to data collected in 2021 by the African Wildlife Foundation, there are currently 36,280 elephants living in Kenya. Slightly more than half of the country's elephant population is to be found in the coastal region.
HOW POPULATION DOUBLED
Kenya has seen its elephant population almost double since 2014. According to experts, this is because incidences of poaching have gone down due to effective security and monitoring systems. It is also due to better management of human-wildlife conflict.
The doubling of elephant numbers and poaching incidences' gradual decrease is owed to the fact that the government has established new ways of dealing with poachers, including the use of drones and short message service communication as well as artificial intelligence.
"The CITES ban has partially contributed to the current growth of elephant populations in the country. Also, Kenya's stand on ivory trade," explained mammologist Agwanda.
CITES, or the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, is a multilateral treaty by the United Nations to protect endangered plants and animals. It consists of more than 185 nations that are signatories to the treaty that took effect on July 1st 1975.
"CITES banned international trade in ivory," Agwanda said.
Kenya banned ivory trade in 1989 as a member of CITES. That same year, the country destroyed more than 12 tonnes of its stockpile of ivory — collected from natural deaths and destroyed rogue elephants — and called for an international ban on the trade of ivory.
In April 2016, the country destroyed another 105 tonnes of ivory and the country called for a total ban on ivory trade during the 2016 CITES Conference in Johannesburg.
But Agwanda points out that so far, the biggest threat to elephant survival is climate change. Drought was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of elephants in Tsavo last year alone.
Building tree cover by protecting swathes of coastal forest and the elephants they feed and protect is one solution. The other is the sale of the elephant dung paper that the Mwaluganje community produces — so they get to benefit from protecting both the trees and the elephants.
"This is a good way of dealing with human and wildlife conflicts. Incidents at Mwaluganje are minimal. The elephant numbers continue to grow,” Mwanyongwe said.