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The elephants move quietly through the gathering darkness, but Tumisi “Shorty” Tlale can hear them. “Listen,” he says, his head cocked to one side as he tries to get a fix on their position. “They’re coming.” A farmer in the eastern panhandle of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Tlale’s ears are attuned to the elephants’ low rumbles as they move through the bush. If his sensitive ears have given him an initial advantage though, it doesn’t last long. When the elephants come, he’s just as vulnerable as anyone else.
He patrols his field of sorghum, millet, and watermelons one more time. Old soda cans and rags soaked in chili and oil hang from the single strand of wire that surrounds his two-and-a-half-acre plot of land near Gunotsoga, the village where he lives. His drum—a shallow aluminum basin—lies near the pile of grains he’s harvested with the help of his wife, Maikaelelo, who works with baby Isabella strapped to her back.
Soon enough, he takes his seat at the small fire where Maikaelelo prepared the evening meal. It’s time to wait.
During harvest season, from April to June, farmers like Tlale move from their homes to set up temporary field camps where they can protect their crops from elephants. There are hundreds of similar fires strung out along the dirt road that stretches from Mohembo East to Gudigwa, connecting 12 villages that vary in size from a few hundred to a few thousand people. The road separates elephants in the largely unsettled northwestern corner of Botswana—which gets drier as harvest season approaches—from the rapidly rising waters on the outer edges of the Okavango Delta.
Even though elephants are naturally fearful of humans, ripening crops that fringe the road between these two worlds are hard to resist. Some fields are even in the corridors most frequently traveled by elephants. Others, like Tlale’s field, are adjacent to them.
Personally, Tlale likes elephants. If they didn’t threaten his livelihood, he’d watch them pass by in peace, he says. His wife sits silently on the ground by his side. Baby Isabella holds onto her bottle with small fingers, watching Tlale with serious eyes.
Will it be his crops tonight? And will the elephants leave when he shouts and beats his drum?
In this part of Botswana there may be more elephants than people, and conflict between them has been increasing since the early 1990s. Some 18,000 elephants live in the Okavango’s eastern panhandle, part of the largest contiguous population in Africa—more than 200,000 elephants distributed over Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In 2011, those five countries signed a treaty creating the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). At more than 200,000 square miles, it is the world’s largest transboundary conservation area, and aims to sustainably manage the ecosystem to the benefit of wildlife—elephants and rhinos, lions and wild dogs, crocodiles and cheetahs—and people.
With elephant ranges expanding and human populations growing and requiring more land for agriculture every year, finding effective ways to deal with human-elephant conflict has never been more important.
A few miles down the road from Tlale’s field, Keboetsewe Rabatlang gestures toward the massive, rotting carcass in his field. “I didn’t want to shoot it,” he says. “It was here, eating the crops in the early evening. Just the women were home. They failed to chase it. That elephant just kept on feeding.”
Each year about 25 elephants and one person die here as a result of conflict. Elephants had been raiding Rabatlang’s field near Beetsha village for 16 years before he shot one of them for the first time in 2014. Like this one, which he felled with a single bullet from his .375 Holland & Holland rifle, it just wouldn’t leave. “Every year it seems like there are more and more of them, and they are no longer afraid of humans,” he says, pointing out where this bull pushed through the fence made from thick mopane branches and thorny scrub.
A single determined elephant can destroy a field in one night. A herd can do it even faster. Without a crop to harvest, families like Rabatlang’s have nothing to eat, let alone surplus grain to sell to pay for things like sugar, salt, and oil.
Almost half the people here live below the region’s poverty line of less than US$150 a month; a recent study conducted in the villages in the eastern panhandle found an average income of even less—around US$60 a month. Tourism jobs like those at the luxury safari camps just a few miles away provide for only a lucky few. Most people farm.
A government program does compensate farmers whose crops are damaged by elephants, and across all forms of damage—to crops, to people, and to structures—individual farmers get an average of only US$35 per year. With around 250 fields, or almost 400 acres, of mixed crops damaged each year in this area, that adds up to about US$8,000 paid out per year for the region. But Rabatlang dismisses talk of the compensation program with frustration. It’s just not enough, and it’s slow to arrive.
“I have 15 people to feed from this field. It takes a whole month to plant, and the season is short. We cannot start again,” he says. “If you struggle like us, you learn things to protect your life,” he continues. “I can be afraid when I confront the elephant, but the risk is worth it. It will die. Or I will die.”
“I appreciate his honesty. The stakes are high,” says Ecoexist ecologist Graham McCulloch as his vehicle bounces over the rutted track that leads from Rabatlang’s field toward the main road. Ecoexist, a nonprofit that is working to help people and elephants in the eastern panhandle live together more harmoniously, was cofounded by McCulloch, biologist Anna Songhurst, and anthropologist Amanda Stronza, with the support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Combining their respective disciplines, the three scientists have spent almost a decade learning about the people and the elephants in this isolated area and developing short- and long-term approaches to mitigating conflict between them.
“It’s a paradise,” says McCulloch, gesturing to the landscape, “but people here are struggling. Conserving this place is actually all about finding common ground. We need to help give this community a voice; they’re the stewards of all this.”
Ecoexist’s team works to cultivate that stewardship: engaging in dialogue with local communities about elephant conflicts, facilitating their participation in land-use planning, and encouraging agricultural practices that help farmers produce better yields off less land and harvest crops earlier, to avoid conflict with elephants.
At the core of the organization’s work is the idea that preempting human-elephant conflict can be more effective—and less deadly—than paying farmers for losses after the fact. “Human-elephant conflict work is often driven by the question of how to mitigate conflict. We’re reframing that question to ask how can we support elephants and people living in the same landscape,” says Stronza.
To that end, for the past four years the organization has also been tracking 40 elephants in the Okavango Panhandle to understand how the animals are moving through this part of the KAZA landscape.
From the air, it’s easy to see just how interlinked the lives of people and elephants are, says Mike Holding, as he maneuvers a Cessna 182 spotter plane toward a small herd he’s identified in the elephant-studded landscape north of the villages and fields. He has picked up the frequency from a radio collar on one of the female elephants, and his job is to find her in the Kalahari woodland, a dry forest landscape of mopane, combretum, and umbrella thorn trees. It’s perfect elephant habitat.
Below the plane, pathways pattern the ground, and where the vast wilderness descends toward the Okavango River and floodplains, villages and fields are clearly distinguishable. The well-trodden routes that wind through them spread out like the lines on the palm of a human hand, connecting dry forest to the delta’s blue waterways, floating papyrus stands, and islands teeming with wildlife.
Spotting the strap dangling from the elephant’s collar, the pilot radios the coordinates to a helicopter pilot, who brings in the vet to dart the animal and then scares away the rest of the herd before depositing biologist Anna Songhurst on the ground. “Elephants drive what I do every day,” she shouts over the thudding rotor blades of the chopper. “When I set out to devote my life to conserving elephants, I became a biologist. That’s not the key to their conservation, though. People are.”
With 20 elephants to find, dart, decollar, sample, and release in less than a week, in a study area of over 3,300 square miles, Songhurst has little time for talk. As she rushes through the bush to find the prone elephant, she’s in constant contact with Holding, who scans from the air for signs of danger, like other elephants. The collar she removes has transmitted daily GPS readings tracking this elephant’s movements, which are plotted in relation to human settlements and other features in the landscape.
“We’ll never have sustainable, free-ranging herds of elephants if we don’t make it easier for the people and the elephants to live together,” she says, working quickly to take blood and DNA samples before whispering into the elephant’s giant ear, “You’ll wake up and be back with your babies soon.”
Songhurst’s data, combined with meticulous fieldwork, has identified 13 corridors through the villages of the eastern panhandle that are used frequently by elephants. “Our research shows that if you’re farming more than half a mile from either side of a half-mile-wide corridor, your chance of having your field raided by elephants decreases by 50%,” she says. A map created from that data now guides Botswana’s land board in ensuring that fields are no longer allocated to people in and near elephant corridors. It’s a roadmap, of sorts, for keeping humans and elephants in their respective, mutually beneficial lanes.
For KAZA, “organizations like Ecoexist have a huge role to play,” says WWF scientist Russell Taylor. Ecoexist’s work on elephant corridors and land-use planning “provides an excellent example of how to think about similar conflict areas elsewhere in KAZA,” he says. “We can learn from their efforts and adaptively develop and implement findings from one place to another.”
Determining where the wildlife is—and where it goes—provides focus for managing the vast landscape that is KAZA. “There have been a number of corridors proposed; and at the regional scale, pathways between what we call wildlife dispersal areas are part of the KAZA management plan,” explains WWF scientist Robin Naidoo. Wildlife dispersal areas—where elephants from different areas can mix and move on again—allow for a healthy flow of genes between populations.
Elephant corridors are likely to provide safe passage for many other species. Naidoo has evaluated elephant corridors between Namibia and other KAZA countries, and is currently evaluating data for a much broader array of animals, trying to determine whether elephants can serve as a proxy species that, if given room to roam, could secure similar space for greater species diversity. But “we’re grappling with how to account for the fact that elephants are particularly hard for people to live with,” he says.
Models of elephant movement developed with data from collared elephants are providing new insights into the relationship between the giant animals and conditions on the ground. “We think our model predicts quite well,” says Naidoo, adding that data from more elephants is needed. “The next step is to bring in more local-level material, like the information that Ecoexist has been collecting,” he says.
One thing that local data shows is how detrimental human-made barriers are to elephants. In the eastern panhandle, elephants are largely hemmed in by an agricultural fence that frames the delta to the south and east, and by the Namibia border fence to the north and west. Among the elephants Songhurst collared, only one, Mandela, crossed the buffalo fence to spend most of his time in the sanctuary of the deep Okavango swamps. The fence between Namibia and Botswana acts as a barrier as well, says Naidoo. “Although elephants could cross it, they don’t do it often.”
Elephants don’t see lines on a map, so ensuring that they and other animals can move freely across borders is key to the success of KAZA’s vision for free-flowing, transboundary wildlife populations and the jobs that could follow. “Barriers are at odds with the vision that KAZA sets out—a plan that lets us create space for elephants in an uncertain world,” says Naidoo.
In the end, creating space for elephants also means ensuring that those who bear the risks of living with them benefit in some way.
Ecoexist community officer Ntshepang Mokgosi gathers data on elephant encounters and community attitudes, and on the implementation of elephant-friendly farming practices, in and around her home village of Eretsha. But perhaps the most important role she and Ecoexist’s 15 community officers play is in helping people to have a voice.
Mokgosi attends participatory village governance meetings called kgotlas, where, she explains, she listens. “It’s hard for people to talk about these things,” she says. “They are afraid because it’s like the elephants have the power, so all the talk is in the back rooms.
“It can be hard to have a job supporting elephants when the village hates them,” she continues. “They say it’s because I am paid to say these things, but as I learn, I believe ... that if you treat elephants right, you can live with them.”
Ecoexist elephant economy assistant Kenneth Manyetse also had to learn that for himself. “In winter, elephants are the first thing I think about when I wake up, and the last thing I think about before I go to bed,” he says. “We encounter them when we gather reeds to build our homes and the grass we use to weave baskets. We meet them when we’re moving between cattle posts, collecting firewood, or foraging for wild fruit.”
But although his stepfather was trampled by an elephant while collecting firewood and later died from his injuries, Manyetse still believes elephants are his route to prosperity. “The same elephants that the tourists are seeing have moved through this village, or one of the other ones here in the panhandle. It has to be possible to benefit from them.” That’s why he worked with Ecoexist to help his community start a “Life With Elephants” tour.
“Elephant-aware farming gets you so far, but it’s got to be about more,” says Ecoexist’s Stronza. In trying to reframe conflict as an opportunity for entrepreneurship, Ecoexist is currently supporting a basket-weaving cooperative that uses elephants as a motif, the “Life With Elephants” village tour that Manyetse helps manage, and an annual elephant fair. They’re also developing elephant-aware products from the area and markets in which to sell them. “People do want to be heard, but they also need money,” Stronza says.
Meanwhile, back in his field camp, Tlale sees a small point of light moving in the darkness as his neighbor runs, shouting at the elephants to “go away; get off here, go!”
He is relieved.
On this night, the elephants have spared his field. It’s his neighbor’s turn to shout and beat a pot in the hopes of scaring them off before too much damage is done. Angry trumpeting rips through the darkness, but the herd moves on without feeding. Maikaelelo hushes baby Isabella back to sleep, while Tlale rekindles the small fire.
In the morning, he notes where the elephant tracks cross the dirt road and disappear toward the delta. Tonight, he’ll wait again.
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