Addressing kgotla meetings in his area last week, and responding to concerns about deaths caused by elephants in Chobe constituency, the area MP Machana Shamukuni – who is also Assistant Minister of Presidential Affairs – infuriated me. The only solution he could provide was to tell residents to kill elephants that wander into their villages and nothing more.
Last week, I discussed the hunting ban, and how it continues to impoverish local communities that depend on them for social and economic benefits. Initially I intended to explore other aspects of that discussion looking at possible solutions and how we could lift the hunting ban. Following the increase in number of people killed by elephants recently I feel compelled to digress.
The debate on elephants, their numbers and undesirable interaction with human beings is well documented. Somewhere on social media, nature detectives are calling on Government to remove all dangerous wildlife from residential areas, as they are responsible for many deaths. Ace on Natural Resources subscribe to this proposal, to serve both the elephants and the Chobe people. The world over – in Conservation ethos and principle number one – it’s people first then wildlife. Therefore Government has a responsibility to protect citizens and members of the public from wildlife as enshrined in the objectives of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP). Is this an expensive exercise? I do not think so!
One is easily reminded of the panic and public outcry when a buffalo was spotted around the Ngwaketse region. That fear and terror best describes how the people of Chobe and Ngamiland districts live on a daily basis. My question is – how many more deaths is Government waiting for before she accepts that there is a serious human-wildlife conflict that needs immediate attention?
Elephants do not only kill people, they also destroy their crops further impoverishing communities already put on a predicament by the negative impact of the on-going hunting ban. Does Government want communities to avenge their anger by resorting to indiscriminate killings of the very same species she wants to protect? Why does Government treat people in these areas as second citizens whose worth is less than that of wild animals? In my view continuing to protect these dangerous animals at the expense of human life can only serve to further fuel the human-elephant conflict. Clearly our Government values elephant conservation over human life. The peanuts paid to families that have lost their loved ones as compensation, beyond being next to nothing, can never bring the deceased back let alone replace the emotional attachment they had with the departed soul. The meagre compensation for such deaths is a joke. Puso ya Botswana e sotlaka ka batho!
The sight of elephants in the southern part of the country always causes a national outcry and immediately wildlife translocation exercises are deployed. One begins to wonder what was at the back of the minds of land use planners during the design of the Chobe Development Plan. Perhaps, instead of buying expensive Gripens we should invest in protecting human life in Chobe and come up with prudent management options such as (i) community PAC (ii) Deployment of skilled manpower on PAC, (iii) the re-introduction of chilli pepper programme and (iv) Revamping of artificial water wholes around the Savuti area that have been neglected, and sustainable biological off-takes as determined by the research division of the DWNP.
In 2002, DWNP started community PAC and policing. This noble idea targeted communities around wildlife management areas and capacitated them on non-lethal measures on controlling wildlife problems, and infusion of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems in curbing the problem. What a befitting exercise that has since been abandoned. Communities felt a sense of ownership and involvement and generously provided other non-destructive measures to control the elephant problem.
One of the calamities of the interaction between elephants and people is that they kill even without any direct provocation. People who live in proximity to elephants regard them as agricultural pests, an invader that damages property and life-threatening monsters. Data from DWNP-PAC records show that the rate of elephant damage has been on the increase in Chobe area. Over the years, the rate of encountering elephants has gradually increased until recently, coupled with an increase in the number of deaths they have caused.
DWNP also wasted millions of Pula on the chilli pepper programme imported from Zambia. Research has shown that hot chillies can be used as a barrier plant to intensify other methods of deterrence. Chillies irritate elephants providing an unpleasant experience such that the elephant will move on to other areas. By growing chillies and using it as a deterrent, farmers were able to defend themselves. This is one area where Government could have invested a lot, thus creating jobs for its citizens and small pepper sauce industry. There was a farmer in the Central district who was ready to invest in this initiative but lacked support from funding agencies. Government should re-introduce this project on a large scale production around farms in Chobe area. Purchasing chillies from farmers who participate in the conservation efforts encourages compliance with mitigation measures and provides cash directly to the farmers.
Provision of artificial water to reduce pressure on the Chobe riverfront and elephants wondering in Kasane township could be used as a secondary measure to address the increasing conflict between elephants and people of Chobe. The idea of placing artificial waterholes in the National Parks (e.g. Chobe) was implemented by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and other NGO's in the early 1990s to reduce the concentration of wildlife at the permanent water bodies, especially of the big game, elephants in particular, which were documented to have caused a lot of habitat destruction or modification around the water bodies. But the three water holes are hardly maintained and the pumping out of water is done haphazardly. There is no proper monitoring regime. Government must drill more boreholes around the National Park up to Zibadiaja area and Mwanochurira river systems to spread out the movement of elephants.
It is a pity that the research division of DWNP is dead and has not produced any befitting policy on the elephant problem. The division should be revamped to carry out meaningful scientific investigation into the elephant problem and suggest solutions. The research division should be equipped to generate new exciting ideas on how to deal with the elephant problem. The DWNP has some of the best biologists who are able to carry out credible animal census, to avoid manipulated data calculated to mislead policy makers. We are watching!
The BONIC programme – whose thematic area was to study the effect of the increasing elephant population along Chobe ecosystems – came with many recommendations that the department should adopt to reduce suffering of the natives. There could be deployment of skilled manpower with enough resources such as deterrence measures that have low-impact for elephants and minimal financial burden, include disturbance calls, adaptive land-use, and repellent methods like the use of signal pen and illuminating guns. We can also try elephant vocalisations that have been argued to deter other elephants, studies that the research division may evaluate.
It is comforting that the Masisi Government has already acknowledged the problem and promised to find strategies to protect people while conserving wildlife at the same time. Elephants often conjure up majestic images but for the people of Chobe, who are forced to share their neighbourhood with these mammoth animals, they inspire fear and frustration. And worse, elephants dictate their movements especially in Plateau and Kasane Mall. Survival of these magnificent and powerful mammals depends on their ability to co-exist peacefully with people; therefore, conservation of the species is manifestly connected to addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of Chobe, who interface with these dangerous weapons.