Conservation news

Anger rises over human-elephant conflict in Tanzania

On January 29, 2017, approximately 200 farmers from the village of Malinzanga in Tanzania stormed the office of the village chairman demanding something be done to protect their crops from elephants. This demonstration contrasted significantly with the “March for Elephants” held in the neighboring city of Iringa just two years ago.

Malinzanga is one of 23 agrarian villages that flank the eastern border of a large network of protected areas in Southern Tanzania, most notably Ruaha National Park. Ruaha and the surrounding territory currently support the largest population of elephants in East Africa, with just over 20,000 individuals.

Although Ruaha National Park is the largest park in Tanzania, elephants still breach its boundaries, where they find themselves in a sea of cultivated fields. They then seize the opportunity to feed on maize, bananas, mangos, and sugarcane. Those crops that are not eaten are often trampled as the herd passes through. In a single night, a herd of elephants can destroy the food supply of an entire family, thus farmers living in affected areas often resort to sleeping in their fields in makeshift huts during the growing season to guard against elephant intrusions. This practice is neither safe for the elephants nor the farmers, both of which have been killed or injured in past incidents.

Map depicting proximity of Malinzanga to Ruaha National Park. Satellite imagery courtesy of Google Maps.

Multiple NGOs with missions to save the species from extinction have centered their attention on the Ruaha population of elephants, which was nearly halved in just six years as a result of the illegal ivory trade. One organization that focuses on human-elephant conflict (HEC) within these 23 villages has reported a jump from 325 total incidents in 2015 to 557 incidents in 2016. More distressing, nearly 80 of the incidents reported in 2016 came from three villages that historically never had elephant conflicts. There are multiple factors that could be contributing to the recent rise in HEC, and current drought is no doubt one of them.

The village of Malinzanga has been hit particularly hard. Elephant raids here more than doubled in 2016, to nearly 400 incidents. It has now erupted as a hotspot for HEC in the region so far in 2017, with more than 100 crop-raiding incidents just in the month of January.

Makeshift hut in the fields used by farmers to sleep in while guarding crops at night from raiding elephants. Photo by Adam C. Stein.

Compounding matters, the current president of Tanzania has declared that, while the country has sufficient food stockpiles, he will not be providing food aid to regions and communities in need as a result of the drought. This announcement has added another level of fear and stress for local subsistence farmers who are watching their crops fail from both drought and elephants. Incidents of elephant crop raiding now have an even more severe potential outcome and this is reflected in the increased anger from farmers towards elephants.

Although there is no official count of the number of elephants causing damage in Malinzanga, eyewitnesses say the herd exceeds 70 individuals. Conservation practitioners were present during the latest raiding episode to provide assistance to the local government game ranger in an effort to prevent a lethal outcome for members of the crop-raiding herd. During times of high crop-raiding, demands from exhausted villagers have led to the shooting of elephants caught raiding fields, which is exactly what happened in the neighboring village of Kipera on February 3, 2017.

Elephants have felt pressure inside protected areas from poachers, as well as outside protected areas from angry villagers. Photo by Adam C. Stein.

Kipera, which lies between Malinzanga and Iringa, is one of the three villages that began experiencing elephant raids for the first time in late 2016. After experiencing several dozen raids over the course of two months, the village chairman called in a member of the Tanzanian National Parks department (TANAPA), who promptly shot one of the nuisance elephants. This type of indiscriminate killing in a herd can have huge ramifications on the herd dynamics. If the large matriarch is killed, it could disrupt the functioning of the herd and destabilize the group.

Higher rates of HEC are to be expected in the region as the human population rises, the need for farmland increases, and the use of surface water accelerates. In addition, climate change could exacerbate droughts or floods, which may push elephants to migrate farther from protected areas. A better resolution for HEC than the current governmental “shoot the nuisance” solution is needed.

A Malizanga villager stands over his destroyed field of bananas. Photo by Isacka Lemulebeli.

Conservationists have discovered many low- and high-tech, nonlethal solutions to keep elephants out of farms. Locally, organizations have employed the use of chili and beehive fences to deter elephants from fields: Beehives strung around farmers’ fields exploits elephants’ natural fear of bees, while hanging ropes and cloth soaked in a strong chili pepper mixture irritates elephants’ highly sensitive nasal passages so much that they avoid those fields. These measures have proven to be highly effective: in the case of the Malinzanga raids, the three farms with beehive fences were spared elephant damage.

Despite these deterrents being relatively low-cost, they are still unattainable for many local farmers. Given that the average beehive fence costs approximately USD$900 per two acres, while the average farmer is lucky to make USD$500 a year, the likelihood that a farmer will invest in these strategies without the assistance of an NGO seems unlikely. Combating future HEC in the region will require large community buy-in, as well as technologies that can be widely applied. A decrease in elephant deaths from poaching may be a likely scenario with China’s new law to ban ivory trade, but elephant deaths from HEC are likely to increase.

Villagers butchering the elephant shot and killed by TANAPA on February 3, 2017 after it and the rest of its herd were caught raiding a farm in the village of Kipera, Tanzania. The meat was distributed to the community. Photo by Kessi Kuandama.