They awake before dawn, pick up their tools and head out into the chilly early morning mist. Theirs is a tough job laced with very real danger every day. They are the Aberdare Fence Scouts, responsible for daily maintenance of the electric fence that surrounds and protects the Aberdare ecosystem.
The scouts work in teams of between two to four members, stationed at intervals along the entire 350kms long (to date) fence line. They reside where they work, in structures known as Guard Posts which double up as Energizer Houses containing the systems that power the electric fence.
Fence Guard Post/Energizer House
The scouts are recruited from the local community. They believe in the work they do, and understand the critical importance of the fence to the communities and the ecosystem.
James and Jacob are typical of the fence scout breed. Young, tough and dedicated, they man the Tusha Fence Guard Post in a densely forested area in the eastern Aberdares. Tusha is located in the magnificent Gura river valley, an area with characteristically steep terrain. They are responsible for a 7km stretch of fence line that straddles the valley. Their work involves walking the fence line and clearing vegetation growth, testing fence voltage, repairing breaks in the fence and observing any unusual activity.
James and Jacob clear vegetation on fence line
Testing fence voltage using a digital voltmeter
The Gura River
Daily fence maintenance work is very physically demanding. The scouts carry heavy tools at high altitude (over 7,000 feet above sea level!), walk long distances in extremely steep terrain and diligently perform their tasks, while braving low temperatures and persistent rain. And they must remain ever alert to the threat of dangerous wildlife such as elephant, buffalo and leopard. In the event of an encounter, they are quick to get out of the way!
Some tools used by the scouts
I experienced this first-hand when I joined James and Jacob on a fence patrol hike. Deep inside the bamboo forest we came across a herd of elephant grazing, whereupon the ever unflappable duo guided me to safety. With a knowing look, James told me that they frequently encounter wildlife, but have learnt to avoid danger and keep working.
What the scouts encounter – elephant up close
While walking, I noticed that their clothes were somewhat worn out. When I inquired about this, they confided that they are often short of kit such as overalls, raincoats, gloves, socks and gum boots, which makes their work much harder.
Later, after what was for me an exhausting trek back to base I noticed that the pair had hardly broken sweat. They showed me their spartan quarters – most of the guard posts are temporary ‘uni-hut’ structures assembled from metal sheets, and many do not have paved floors. It gets very cold and wet in the mountains, so their uni-huts are not the most comfortable dwellings.
Inside a uni-hut
It is a key objective of Rhino Ark to raise funds for the construction of permanent stone Fence Guard Posts for the scouts. This is a necessary undertaking for which we continue to seek support. After a hard day’s work, our heroes need a comfortable place to rest, don’t they?