Elephants and People Matters

Firstly, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the enormous ecological footprint that we as humans have and the impact that we are having on the environment. We now live in a world where it is virtually impossible to avoid a situation where the range of wildlife populations doesn’t overlap with that of human habitation.

This week, the International Fund for Animal Welfare is working with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to collar eight elephants in Tsavo East National Park in an effort to learn more about elephant movements in and out of the park.  Information obtained from the satellite collars will help park management develop an informed, proactive strategy to deal with human-elephant conflict in the region.

This effort got me thinking about the bigger picture where human-wildlife interactions are concerned, including where things are currently headed and, what remedial actions are necessary if we want to stay on a path towards harmonious co-existence between animals and people.

Firstly, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the enormous ecological footprint that we as humans have and the impact that we are having on the environment.  Part of this footprint, of course, is the fact that burgeoning human populations have had a direct impact on the land available for conservation, which has resulted in highly fragmented habitats for numerous wildlife species, including African and Asian elephants.

We now live in a world where it is virtually impossible to avoid a situation where the range of wildlife populations doesn’t overlap with that of human habitation.  While national parks networks the world over, play a vitally important role in providing, at the very least, a baseline for the space needed to protect important ecosystems and associated biological diversity, the reality is that the range of such species as elephants often extends far beyond that of protected area boundaries, onto communal land.  It is at this interface that the interactions become heightened and often result in conflict.  And it is this conflict that often becomes politicised resulting in poor management and / or land-use policy decisions.

I subscribe to an elephant list-serve and not a day goes by where I don’t receive an article about human-elephant conflict.  I think it is fair to suggest, albeit in a non-scientific sense, that we have a problem.  But what exactly is the problem?

Well, it is a problem when an elephant bull walks into a village and tramples someone or eats their crops.  It is, however, a bigger problem when nothing is being done to address the fact that the elephant bull is doing exactly that.  This is especially true when the one thing that we do know, given the state of play where “space for conservation” is concerned, as alluded to above, is that elephants and people have been and will continue to interact for centuries to come unless we move to a highly undesirable state of keeping wildlife in zoo-like conditions (e.g. safari parks, fenced game reserves etc).

In my books, this means that we have to adopt a two-pronged approach to dealing with human-elephant interactions that result in conflict, given that interactions there will always be:

1. We have to continue to seek case-specific solutions for conflict mitigation based on sound science and;

2. We have to start thinking proactively with a view to understanding the dynamics of these interactions well into the future.

To date, the approach has been largely reactionary.  There needs to be a paradigm shift if we truly want to make a difference for both elephants and people.  I am proud to say that IFAW is working in both of these areas to address conflict concerns.

In Africa, through our habitat protection efforts in Kenya and Malawi, we are working with government agencies to implement conflict mitigation strategies.  We are also working in West Africa, through a targeted education and awareness initiative, to reach out to those people who live with elephants.

In India and China, we have very focused projects working with communities to develop and implement mitigation strategies.  And, importantly, through a focused research approach in partnership with the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) of the University of Pretoria, we are developing models for southern Africa, based on overlays of elephant and human demographic variables, of what the world of human-elephant might look like ten, fifteen and twenty years down the line.  This will definitely allow for a more informed and sound approach to land-use and management policy decisions moving forward.

-- JBL

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia