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.