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  • Writer's pictureKire Godal

Field Update: Part 1 - Exploring human - wildlife conflict in "Tolstoy the Tomato Thief"

A Super Tusker Elephant named Tolstoy and a little boy Kibaki who hates him.


This film intimately captures a portrait of change, exploring man’s ever-growing expansion into wilderness regions, the drastic impacts made to our wildlife neighbors, and the urgent questions on how to adapt and share resources in new land use configurations. 


Oct 2021 - Below ‘post card perfect’ Mt Kilimanjaro, we follow Tolstoy’s footprints on the clay earth as they zigzag through the tightly knitted wait-a-bit thorn trees.  I manoeuvre my ole Land cruiser between the lava rocks that rip at her axle, and the thorn branches that screech across her sides as I track. 

Tolstoy has become a master of evasion, but this time we catch up.  It’s been many months filming, and we have only managed to glimpse him a few times. I pull my RED camera up into position, and start shooting through my driver’s window, while Mike the sound man sticks his boom gently out the back window. 

Tolstoy stands 15 meters away, behind a veil of dry tree branches. It's impossible for this 50-year-old Super Tusker bull elephant with ivory that touches the ground to hide. I can see his distinctly straight tusks poking out below the bare tree branches which give him away. ‘Nice one Tolstoy’, I think.

There are about 24 Super Tuskers left on earth, and he happens to be the Kilimanjaro ecosystem’s most notorious ‘Tomato Thief’.  He triangulates listening through the pad on his front foot to the underground sound waves to help him locate his ‘Gang of Bulls’.  Tolstoy needs to re-join his boys before sunset to lead tonight’s tomato raids. In a matter of minutes, he slips into the dense bush and is gone. 

10 -year-old Kibaki reminds me of a character out of Oliver Twist.  Such a soulful little boy. He’s flanked by his two best friends, on a tree trunk situated in the corner of a ripe tomato farm about the size of a soccer field. 

The owner of the tiny farm, Otieno, is talking to Kibaki’s father Baba about warding off the elephants tonight.  He has three days left until harvest, and if Otieno can bring in his full tomato crop he will have enough money for his family’s needs for the next few months.  If not, they will go broke.  Otieno shows the boys how to make the fire torches with sticks, old fabric, and used engine oil. Both fire and flashlights are their only tools to chase away hungry elephant thieves in the night.

As the sky darkens to indigo, everyone stops talking. Otieno and Baba patrol the tomato field in the ink dark, as the boys’ eyes grow wider - we can hear the elephants calling in the distance all around us. 

Kibaki whispers under his breath “I hate elephants”.  The elephants will slip in silently on their marshmallow feet and demolish row after row of tomato plants in a matter of minutes before the tomato defenders have a chance to light up their torches and scare them way. Tolstoy, the master tomato thief is out there somewhere in the dark. It’s going to be a long night.

I first met Tolstoy in 2017 with Big Life co-founder and conservationist Richard Bonham and Save the Elephants researchers as they were all working together to protect the elephants from angry farmers, and farmers from hungry elephants. 

Human-wildlife conflict has escalated in the last decade and is overtaking poaching as the leading cause of elephant mortality in Kenya.  There are dozens of new farms popping up everywhere owned by the Maasai, who until recently were semi nomadic pastoralists. In the past, they shared their open savannah with wildlife. Today, forced to settle, the once tolerant Maasai pastoralists and their elephant neighbors have become mortal enemies.

"Tolstoy the Tomato Thief" takes us on the journey of a Super Tusker elephant and a little Maasai farm boy who hates him, as they navigate a changing African landscape.


Stay tuned for Field Update Part 2!

More soon, Kire Godal

Kire Godal is the Director/ Cinematographer of the upcoming film "Tolstoy the Tomato Thief". Her film tells the story of human-wildlife conflict from all sides, giving voice to the Maasai children growing up hating elephants as the first generation of farmers, the Conservationists working against the clock in real-time trying to avert disaster - and finally Tolstoy’s voice (through the use of ‘magical realism’) as he navigates change, tragedy, fear and love.  

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