Saving elephants through community based conservation
The heartbreaking death of the pregnant elephant in India has brought to light the longstanding issue of human-wildlife conflict.
Across the world, motions call for justice and law reform, which is a necessary measure in the battle against animal cruelty. But long term resolution lies in addressing the contentious problem of conflict between people and animals as we compete for space and resources on a rapidly degrading planet.
An African perspective
This has become a critical issue and one equally significant here in Africa. Just like in India, our wildlife here face constant persecution by landowners and local communities. Encounters between people and animals have become increasingly problematic, especially in rural areas where crop-raiding is a major concern.
In South Africa, our historical conservation approach largely involved fencing off vast expanses of land.
And while this has been fundamental for protecting our wildlife, we have witnessed the negative effects on animals with large home ranges, and on communities’ outlying protected areas.
Understanding elephant needs
Elephants typically roam circa twenty-five kilometres daily on average, but they can trek up to two hundred kilometres in a single day if resources are low - especially in times of drought. This often results in them wandering onto adjoining land in search of food and water.
Once an elephant wanders into a neighbouring community or onto private land, human safety is threatened and property damage is imminent. People are often forced to resort to their own measures. This is why having wildlife emergency response protocols are imperative to protect the animals as well as the people and their land.
The evolution of conservation in South Africa
In the past, South African conservationists failed to take into consideration the needs of local communities when fences were erected – to the detriment of both wildlife and humans.
We are now learning from past mistakes and looking at ways to incorporate community needs into conservation efforts.
In recent years, relations have been established between community leaders and park officials in many reserves. By setting clear guidelines, protocols, and communication channels, risks are mitigated. But we still have a long way to go to establish these protocols continent-wide, which brings to light the overall issue.
The struggle for space
Historically, elephants had massive ranges and roamed across the continent.
But as Africa developed, national borders and park boundaries blocked important wildlife corridors, thereby hampering natural movements and migrations.
As human population numbers continue to climb, our settlements encroach further into depleting wild spaces.
And as elephants are squeezed into smaller fragments of land, their impact poses risks to overall ecosystem health.
In Southern Africa, the controversial topic of population control through culling is often raised, as alternate measures are deemed unsustainable.
Exploring peaceful co-existance
Since the late nineties, more reserves are adopting the peace parks strategy of dropping fences between reserves, thereby merging protected areas and increasing roaming ranges. This may alleviate some pressures but it still doesn’t solve the issue of conflict between people and animals.
Many conservationists are advocating the land-sharing approach which involves working toward the peaceful co-existence between people and wildlife outside the confines of intensively protected areas. But with excessive poaching in many parts of Africa, it is imperative to address underlying issues.
Where humans suffer, so do animals
Studies reflect a direct correlation between poverty and high levels of poaching. This is why it is important to consider human welfare alongside conservation efforts. Ultimately, community development and conservation are irrevocably linked and should never be addressed separately.
Our relationship with elephants dates back thousands of years, and as animals continue to lose their natural habitat, conflict is inevitable.
We need to act now to prevent future tragedies unfolding and work towards harmonious co-existence with these instrinsically gentle giants.
Here are some great initiatives to support:
Through the Khetha project, WWF South Africa is building relationships between protected areas and communities by forging collaborative partnerships with NGOs and governmental institutions. These partnerships focus on collectively managing protected areas and developing communities that are safe, healthy, and have socio-economic opportunities. This project is run in the South African and Mozambican landscape of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area.
Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) is a South African based organisation on a mission to preserve our wild elephants and rhinos through poverty alleviation. They select projects based on the potential to create economic engines for impoverished rural communities in areas adjacent to threatened elephant and rhino populations.
The Kenyan based Save the Elephants organisation is running an interesting and innovative Elephants & Bees project. The project aims to reduce crop-raiding using beehive fences to deter elephants based on their instinctive avoidance of African honey bees. And at the same time, sustainable honey harvesting provides an income stream for poverty-stricken rural communities.
Elephants for Africa hold educational workshops for communities and subsistence farmers in Northern Botswana, helping them to understand elephant behaviour, deter elephants, improve farming techniques, and create entrepreneurial tourism initiatives.
These organisations rely heavily on public donations for funding which is at an all-time low due to the COVID-19 crises. Visit their websites to donate to these amazing causes and innovative projects.