Trial of a killer elephant on centre stage

Friday October 08 2021
 Alliance Française

'On Trial' at Alliance Française, Nairobi, tackles human-wildlife conflict, performed by Youth Theatre Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY OF ALLIANCE FRANCAISE


In a play directed by 25-year-old Jazz Moll, founder of Youth Theatre Kenya (YTK), the audience’s attention is on the ''courtroom'' scene.

On stage, at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi, is Athena in chains, the matriarch of her elephant family in the Tsavo enclave, accused of murdering a little boy who was playing in a field that his mother was working on.

The trial’s first salvos are from the prosecutor. Seated on his side are the boy’s parents and a witness. He paints Athena as a mindless murderer, calling upon the three present, drawing on their sympathy and doing his best to curry the jury's favour.

Athena’s defence lawyer does an even more admirable job of showing Athena as a parent who acted in self-defence.

On the fateful day, her calf strayed to the edge of the farmer’s field and stopped. The matriarch appeared right behind him.The boy’s father, who was sharpening his arrow tips, ran towards the elephants his arm raised to maim Athena.

In panic, Athena picks up the human child and trampled him underfoot and now stands accused of murder. In an emotionally-charged defence played by Michael Moses Njihia as the defence lawyer, challenges the charge. Naturally, in real life this would never happen since the Athenas and their kind are voiceless.


Prosecuting, Annan Aketch Koffi scores powerful points and lends courtroom life to Athena. The elephant is presented as nothing less than any human being and is indeed an animal of high intelligence, capable of making choices, including of being tender and caring.

The prosecutor believes Athena was alive to her actions when she killed the human calf.

Athena the elephant matriarch

Athena the elephant matriarch is tried for manslaughter. Yet, it is mankind that has encroached on parks. PHOTO | COURTESY OF ALLIANCE FRANCAISE

This theatrical production aims to provoke the jury that is the audience, to question human-wildlife conflict at recess, they are invited to cast their vote online.

The Jury’s verdict

The finale opens with the question: guilty, innocent or will Athena stand trial for manslaughter? If it is ruled premeditated murder, Athena will have to die a slow, painful death by poisoned arrow. Not instant death by bullet either.

If she is charged with manslaughter, she will be removed from her herd to live a life in exile. If she is innocent, she will be reunited with her family. The verdict is read out to an attentive audience.“We have to review our relationship with the natural world,” states Moll. “We think it will all be okay.

But it’s not. Year 2050 is the tipping point for humanity if we don’t get real about climate change and global warming.”Moll with Lizzie Jago (playwright of On Trial and Artistic Director of YTK, Ben James and Mimi Mutahi founded YTK in 2015 as a platform for young actors. It is used to act out, dramatise such issues as the human-wildlife dilemma.

Even heads of states acknowledged the serious threat to our wildlife and natural resources during the recent online webinar on African elephants, as they are pushed into smaller spaces. Athena, came from, Tsavo East National Park is hemmed in by Taru Desert, a waterless territory.

The Tsavo enclave was set aside as a protected area for wildlife in the 1940s, as it was deemed unsuitable for human habitation. It was scrubland where the tough acacia, Commiphora and the world’s largest succulent, the baobab survived.

It is here that elephants migrated over vast areas in century-old routes to fresh pasture and water, allowing for the land behind to regenerate. The hunter-gatherers lived off them and the land in balance.

Today, the Tsavo is being settled upon with plantations of avocados. The human population in Kenya in 1940s was six million. Today, it is hugging 50 million and poaching an issue but looming larger is human-wildlife conflict over space.

“This courtroom drama is, however, a real scene that plays out every day,” says Moll. The play forced the audience to seek solutions instead of being mere bystanders.