While majority of Kitui residents engage in livestock keeping as an economic activity, 71-year-old Peter Maundu rears tortoises for a living.
Maundu rears over one thousand tortoises on his five-acre farm in Voo village in Kitui East Constituency, more than 70 kilometers away from Kitui Town.
He said he ventured into the rare economic activity in 2005 after it became nearly impossible to grow crops due to perennial droughts which are common in this remote part of Kitui.
“Having realized that severe climatic conditions and inadequate rainfall could not sustain crops here, I chose to change tact and start a Tortoise Farm and of course with licensing from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS),” he said.
“It was not easy to acquire the Paper. I had to travel to Nairobi several times. I spent much of my money and time before KWS finally gave me the license, three years after application,” said the farmer.
With the imminent extinction of the Pancake Tortoise in the country, it was a prerequisite for the farm to be located on an area habitable for the reptiles since they are naturally reclusive and thrive well on mountainous areas, so as to boost their proliferation. He was also asked to provide quarterly reports on how the reptiles were doing.
The farmer also had to assure the local KWS office that he had enough food, water and security for the reptiles with the office giving him a list of the foods he should have for both mature tortoises and hatchlings.
The former administrator said the rocky terrain of his home area was most suitable for conserving the endangered animals.
A rocky region, Voo, was documented by National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and KWS as one suitable area that could be considered for the management programme of the Pancake Tortoise which is native to Tanzania and Kenya. Its common name refers to the flat shape of its shell.
Maundu, a retired Assistant Chief said he started off with 25 tortoises but the numbers had increased significantly in a span of 14 years.
“I have more than 2,000 tortoises in both my farms here at Voo and in Kibwezi, Makueni County,” boasted Maundu.
Other than the pancake species, Maundu also has leopard and inch pack which he sells to reptile eating countries like USA, Germany and China.
“They are usually sold young when they are about nine inches long and can fetch between ten and fifteen dollars depending on market dynamics,” said the only tortoise farmer in Kitui County.
The leopard tortoise is large and round like a football and attractively marked with leopard like spots on its shell while the Pancake is thin and flat with a flexible shell.
Though the venture has enabled him to support his family and educate his children, Maundu said challenges abound.
“Feeding the animals is not easy because they only feed on greens which are hard to get in this semi-arid area. I’m forced to dig deep into my pockets to ensure the tortoises are well fed and free of diseases,” he noted.
He added that securing the animals was costly since he had to surround the farm with a perimeter wall compounded with wire mesh to prevent the animals from roaming away besides keeping predators away.
He also decried the lack of direct and lucrative markets for tortoises, saying he was forced to sell them through brokers which weighed down on his income.
Maundu entered into an agreement with Exotic International (a company that deals with the exportation and importation of exotic commodities) that gave the firm the responsibility to find buyers for his products while he was to pay them via commission after sales.
The tortoise farmer also cries foul of the long process before a successful delivery of the animals is made. When a market is found, he first has to clear with KWS before he delivers the animals.
‘A KWS official must visit the farm also to make an observation of the number to be sold before the office consents to grant the farmer the very much needed permit,’ said Maundu.