In Summary
  • When elephants swallow it,  glochids (small spines on the fruit) get lodged in their throats, stomachs or intestines. If they get stuck in the elephants’ mouths, the beasts develop abscesses and eventually starve to death because they can no longer eat,” he says.
  • At the Naibunga Conservancy in Laikipia North, the cactus has already taken over about 17,000 acres. Mr Lekurtut says the arid conditions in the vast area have made it easy for the  cactus to spread rapidly.
  • When herders in the area slaughter a goat, they are puzzled by what eats up the animals’ intestines. He says many cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys have died due to complications caused by eating the cactus.

It is round and comes in different shades of green, covered with spines and hair-like prickles with yellow flowers and a few edible purple-reddish fruits.

These are the traits that biologists say ensure the survival of the Opuntia ficus, an invasive cactus plant that is now considered the second biggest threat to the elephant population in northern Kenya after poaching.  

It’s not clear when the plant was introduced in Kenya, but Mzee Loitemu Letiktik, one of the elders in Labarishereki Village on the border of Isiolo and Laikipia counties, says the invasive species, which has taken over their grazing land, was introduced by white colonial farmers who settled in the area in the early 1950s.  

Today, the cactus that has long been domesticated for use as a barrier nd liked for its juicy fruits is killing elephants in the two counties and making the environment inhospitable.

 Mr Peter Lekurtut, the manager of Oldonyiro Conservancies in Isiolo North, says that in the past five months, six elephants died after eating the plant.

RIGHT CONDITIONS

“We do not have an accurate figure, but we can confirm that six elephants died after eating the plant. When elephants swallow it,  glochids (small spines on the fruit) get lodged in their throats, stomachs or intestines. If they get stuck in the elephants’ mouths, the beasts develop abscesses and eventually starve to death because they can no longer eat,” he says.

At the Naibunga Conservancy in Laikipia North, the cactus has already taken over about 17,000 acres. Mr Lekurtut says the arid conditions in the vast area have made it easy for the  cactus to spread rapidly.

“The plant has taken over our conservancy and is an irritant due to its spines. It prevents access to many areas in the ecosystems, displaces pastoral communities and causes injuries and infection to people, livestock and to other wild animals,” he says.

Mzee Letiktik says when herders in the area slaughter a goat, they are puzzled by what eats up the animals’ intestines. He says many cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys have died due to complications caused by eating the cactus. The situation is made worse by perennial droughts, which reduce food for livestock and wildlife, forcing them to turn to the prickly cactus. 

Environmental  experts say the eradication of any plant depends on factors such as the terrain, cost and availability of labour, severity of the infestation and presence of other invasive species.

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