Notes from Namibia — Waiting for Elephants

The writer waits for elephants to cross the road in Namibia. Photo: Kami Lee

The writer waits for elephants to cross the road in Namibia. Photo: Kami Lee

As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in Namibia, it never occurred to me I would be intimately involved in human-wildlife conflict: I consider having to wait 40 minutes for elephants to cross the road before driving the last hundred yards to our campsite pretty intimate.

But does this really come under the heading of human-wildlife conflict? Not for me anyway! I found it terribly exciting and only lamented the fact that I couldn’t get a really good photo through the windshield of our Land Rover.

It is sobering, though, to realize that year after year, people where I work lose not only crops but sometimes their lives to wildlife.

Changing Focus

Until the third year of my Peace Corps service in Namibia, I’d never even heard the term human-wildlife conflict, and now I find it pops up constantly.

As a health volunteer in West Caprivi, even though my primary focus is HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, I have learned that it is impossible not to get involved in human-wildlife conflict.

Kami Lee poses with a friend from the San tribe. Photo: Courtesy Kami Lee

Kami Lee poses with a Nyemba friend from her earlier Peace Corps work in Shambyu. Photo: Courtesy Kami Lee

My site this year is Bwabwata National Park (BNP) – an area of approximately 6100 km² in the northeast corner of Namibia, bordered on the south by the Kavango River and on the north by Angola. The land is owned by the Namibian government and managed jointly by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Kyaramacan Association, a legal entity representing the park residents.

Historically, the park was a strategic area, a base for the South African Defense Forces during the war of independence. Shortly after Namibia gained independence in 1990, West Caprivi was declared a national park.

Approximately 5,000 people live here: 87 percent are Khwe, a marginalized San or Bushman group; the rest are mainly from the Mbukushu tribe.

According to the 2008 health survey carried out by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, Namibia as a whole has an HIV prevalence rate of 17.8 percent. However, the Caprivi region has an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of close to almost 32 percent —  the highest in the country, which is why they requested a health volunteer.

Initially, my work focused on HIV/AIDS awareness through information sessions and workshops. However, everyone I talked with seemed to know about HIV, and it soon became apparent that poverty was as much a factor as unprotected sex in the spread of AIDS.

Gradually the emphasis shifted to learning about livelihood, food security, how people live and what they need to survive, and supporting income-generating projects. Inescapably, this led to human-wildlife conflict.

Bwabwata National Park

Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), the Namibian NGO I work with, is a pioneer in the southern African region in a development strategy known as community-based, natural-resource management (CBNRM), a national program that addresses both sustainable natural-resource management and socio-economic development.

Trophy hunting is one means of income for the San people. Photo: Kami Lee

Trophy hunting is one means of income for the Khwe people. Photo: Kami Lee

Few Bwabwata Park residents have access to formal employment, and their sources of cash income are limited to the sale of rare surplus crops and livestock; government pensions; and the sale of handicrafts, mostly baskets. CBNRM offers a way for a people living in a specific area to increase their access to cash by jointly managing their resources in order to benefit collectively.

In other words, members of the group (in this case, Bwabwata National Park residents) learn that their future is inextricably tied up with that of their natural resources, including wildlife. As long as there is abundant wildlife and natural resources, their economic future is viable; however, if wildlife populations decrease, so will their economic benefits.

Understanding the value of wildlife and its importance to their economic stability through tourism — including trophy hunting, which provides access to cash benefits, employment opportunities and, in the case of the latter, meat distribution, motivates community members to protect wildlife and the natural resources in the area.

Until Bwabwata was proclaimed a national park in 2007, the Khwe did what they had always done: They hunted and gathered. They still gather to some extent, using wild fruits, berries, and nuts as food supplements and/or as natural medicine. But it is now illegal for them to hunt and, much as they love meat, former hunters, now working as community game guards, are committed to collaborating with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to protect the park wildlife from illegal poaching.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

But what happens when there is conflict between the park residents and the very animals they are helping to protect?

A water buffalo mother and child cross the road, while a driver waits. Photo: Kami Lee

A water buffalo mother and child cross the road, while a driver waits. Photo: Kami Lee

Animals roam throughout Bwabwata and it is common to see elephants, kudu, an occasional cheetah and even a wild dog or two, when driving along the B8, a beautifully maintained paved road otherwise known as the trans-Caprivi highway. For tourists — and for volunteers and other outsiders working in the area — these sightings are always thrilling. For the local people, they are often reminders of crop damage and/or human death.

Hippos, for example, are notoriously aggressive and territorial and are responsible for more loss of human life than any other mammal. Just last month a 39-year old Khwe man was crossing the river in a wato (local canoe made from a hollowed-out tree limb) when a hippo surfaced nearby rocking the wato and throwing the man off balance and into the river where he was bitten by the hippo. He managed to make it to shore where he was found by neighbors and taken to the hospital, where he died five days later.

The tribal authority, members of the village council and a representative from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism met to decide on compensation to the family. Two weeks later, the offending hippo (I’m curious as to how they knew which hippo was the one) was shot by an MET ranger, and the meat was given to the man’s family.

On land, cases brought before the tribal courts are never as clear cut. In fact, sometimes no retribution is possible.

Fighting to Save Crops

After an informal HIV/AIDS information session in Mashambo, one of the most remote villages in Bwabwata National Park, not much more than a cluster of mud and clay huts with a one-room school house made of sheets of tin, I spoke with participants about their crops. It was early March, the season in West Caprivi when farmers are beginning to look forward to harvesting the maize and mahangu (pearl millet) – the staples of their diet.

Community resource monitors attending a training in the Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Kami Lee

Community resource monitors attending a training in the Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Kami Lee

Mafuta Sakoye, the 47-year old chairman of the school board, told me about his conflict with elephants. This year he planted three hectares of maize, sorghum and beans. For more than two months, he and the other villagers have left their homes several nights a week to chase elephants away from their crops. As in past years, large portions of his field (he estimates 40%) — fields that took weeks to prepare and four days to plant — have been destroyed by elephants — in a matter of hours.

In Sakoye’s words: “The elephant knows when to come. People plant, he comes and sees nothing and goes away. Later he comes back, and when he sees the plants are higher, he eats the leaves. Then he waits maybe three weeks and comes back again to eat the new growth.”

Kamine Deudeu is Sakoye’s grandmother. He doesn’t know her exact age, but she collects a monthly government pension so he assures me that she is over 60. This year her field — one hectare planted with maize, mahangu, pumpkin, and ground nuts — was totally destroyed by elephants that started coming mid January, when the crops were over two feet high. Now she’s sitting at home. With no crops to tend, her days are endless and her economic future bleak.

The principal method used to chase elephants away is noise: People beat drums, shout and clap, making as much noise as possible. They don’t use fire because, according to Sakoye, “fire will make the elephant come to you.” Sometimes there are three elephants, sometimes four — “you have to beat the drums before they taste the plants, then they will leave. After they taste the plants, it’s too late, the noise will not deter them.” During these crucial months, many villagers don’t sleep much. Ngala Musheka, a young teacher, joins us and adds that just last night elephants entered three neighbors’ fields, wreaking havoc on the young crops.

Chili Bombs and Other Remedies

I remember having read something about the effectiveness of chili bombs in keeping elephants away and ask Sakoye and Musheka if they have heard of this method and/or tried it. Neither has, though Musheka attended a training offered by IRDNC last year. Using chili bombs involves planning ahead – something that doesn’t come naturally to these hard-working people, used to surviving day by day. However, due to this year’s heavy losses, both say they are now ready to try anything to save their crops. The loss of so many crops is more keenly felt this year, because there was no income from trophy hunting last year, and farmers have no reserves.

Dominic Muyema prepares a chili bomb of elephant dung and chili powder. Photo: Kami Lee

Dominic Muyema prepares a chili bomb of elephant dung and chili powder. Photo: Kami Lee

According to Dominic Muyema, the IRDNC human wildlife conflict manager I visited after leaving Mashambo, elephants are sensitive to the smell of chili and, in some parts of the country chili bombs or chili fences have been used to keep elephants away from the crops with great success.

Chili bombs are made from a mixture of dried elephant dung and crushed chili powder, which is then shaped into a lump and stored until the time when elephants are most likely to forage close to where people live. Typically, when a farmer hears elephants approaching (trust me, the noise they make crashing through the bush is unmistakable!). He rouses the family, and all rush outside to light the chili bombs, which have been placed 50 meters apart on the perimeter of the field. The smoke — and the loud clapping — drives the elephants away. Unfortunately, only to come back another day. During growing seasons, many farmers never get a full night’s rest — they must constantly be on the alert against marauding elephants. Chili fences operate on the same principle, except pieces of cotton soaked in petrol and crushed chili power are hung 50 meters apart on wire fences surrounding the fields.

Elephants are not the only culprits — baboons take their toll too. According to a villager in Mautu, the baboon is even more clever, “he waits until the mealie seed (corn) is dry, then he watches from a tree until the owner of the plot is busy (for example, the woman is occupied pounding mahangu). Then he runs into the field and steals the maize. He also likes very much the pumpkin and the tsama melon.”

Livestock Deaths

Human-wildlife conflict in BNP is not limited to destruction of crops, however; livestock is vulnerable as well. Since I’ve been here, lions have killed at least five cows, and leopards have carried off two goats. The cows had been left to graze and wander at will throughout the countryside; the goats, however, were taken from inside the kraal (a southern African fenced enclosure for livestock).

As the sign warns, humans are wise to watch out for wild animals. Photo: Kami Lee

As the sign warns, humans are wise to watch out for wild animals. Photo: Kami Lee

I never heard if anything was done to compensate the villagers for the loss of the cows. I do know that villagers in Mutc’iku took matters into their own hands and shot the leopard that had returned for another goat. My counterpart and I happened to be working in the village that day and came upon a farmer skinning the leopard. Shortly after, two MET officials arrived on the scene. What — if anything — was done to the farmer responsible for the death of a leopard — an elusive animal rarely seen by tourists and for that reason a highly valued sighting — I never learned.

Is there a permanent solution to the human-wildlife conflict in Bwabwata National Park? Probably not. Chili bombs and clapping may keep crop damage to a minimum, and fencing livestock in at night will certainly keep all but the hungriest and most determined predators from eating cows and goats. But, from what I’ve seen, human-wildlife conflict will — to some extent anyway — continue to be an integral part of life in Bwabwata National Park for the foreseeable future.

And, I can’t say that I’m sorry. On the contrary, I hope there will never come a time when vehicles entering the park don’t have to wait on occasion for elephants to cross the road.

Kami Lee

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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