Elephants don’t always make good neighbours. This was the stark message we at the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) learnt last week, when our Kenya team visited a Maasai village on the edge of Amboseli National Park.
We met Shungeya Leeyio, a father overcome by grief. Three months ago his beloved teenage son Nkaneni – ‘the boy who was going to lift us out of poverty’– was out herding cattle when he came across an irate bull elephant.
Nkaneni fled, but the elephant pursued him and trampled him to death. ‘He was too young to marry or own cows, so his grave is unmarked’, explained Shungeya. ‘We have been promised compensation, but we are still waiting.
From Kenya to Chad, from Gabon to Uganda, elephants and people are competing for land and dwindling natural resources. There are reasons to worry this conflict will worsen. In 2000, Africa was home to some 0.82 billion people. By 2050, according to the UN, this number will have increased to 2.53 billion.
The 22 countries in the world with the highest birth rates are African. They are all elephant range states, except Burundi and Gambia, which have already lost theirs. In order to thrive, elephants need to roam across big distances. But every day people are encroaching into what was undisturbed elephant habitat. Migratory routes are cut, national parks hemmed in by farmland.
For decades many conservationists have repeated a simple message: if we want to save Africa’s elephants, we need to stop the ivory trade. This newspaper, through its Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign has given its voice to that cause and contributed to many successes. China has shut down its ivory market, and so have several other important countries. In some elephant range states, like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, ivory poaching is much reduced and elephant numbers are recovering.
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But now we need to look beyond ivory and face a new reality: there is no future for many of Africa’s elephants if we don’t also find solutions to Human-Elephant Conflict, (or HEC). Indeed, ivory poaching and HEC often thrive in unhealthy symbiosis. If rural communities are hostile to elephants, they are not going to help governments stop poachers. They’re more likely to turn a blind eye, or possibly become involved themselves in illegal activity.
That’s why the Foundation is supporting the EPI, a unique alliance of 21 African countries dedicated to conserving their elephants, has decided on a new focus.
There is an urgent need for African countries, and their friends, to come together to share best practice and technologies on HEC. Electric fences, bee hives and better development planning; all have their place in mitigating current conflicts and preventing new ones.
Our partners Space for Giants have been working on this issue for years. Their experience is that the involvement of local communities is key. We need to listen carefully to those on the frontline of HEC, and make sure any solutions address their concerns.
If people believe a fence has been built to protect their crops and enable their children to travel safely to school, or herd their livestock, they will do their best to maintain it. If governments can consider the migratory routes of elephants in their development and infrastructure planning, we can avoid a proliferation of future conflicts.
Outsiders, often from parts of the world that eliminated their own dangerous animals hundreds of years ago, need to bear African realities in mind. The EPI countries do treasure their elephants. But they cannot afford to be overly sentimental about them.
The collapse of conservation revenues because of Covid-19 must concentrate our minds. The stakes could not be higher. If we can ensure the harmonious coexistence of people and elephants, we will not only be saving these magnificent animals, but also a wide range of other species, as well as combating climate change and supporting sustainable livelihoods through the 21st century.
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