Uganda's Marauding Elephants And Their Human Neighbors

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[Global: Uganda]

In Uganda when elephants strayed into Koch Goma and its environs I received messages that “Your friends are looking for you. Your friends have come. Your friends came but the rangers marched them back.” 

Elephants were near our farm at Koch Goma - my old backyard and ancestral home. For the past six consecutive years elephants have invaded Koch Goma and caused untold misery, and I too want them back into the nearby Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP)--that is Uganda's largest National Park.

A recent article states “Elders in Acholi sub-region have said government and its partners in oil exploration immediately stop dumping waste in MFNP in Nwoya District, saying the waste is sending away the animals. The animals, especially elephants, have massively strayed on settlement and farming areas, causing insecurity to the residents.” 

However, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)  responded: “UWA can never allow oil waste to be dumped in the protected areas. 

For aeons, elephants of what is now MFNP moved back and forth from Uganda into Southern Sudan following a path parallel to the River Nile. That elephant corridor has now been blocked by developments and most recently there was a proposal for a sugar plantation. First, investors wanted part of Mabira Forest for growing sugar and despite a campaign to save Mabira after a public outcry, the issue still simmers.

Then the investors turned their eyes hundreds of miles away to Acholiland in the northern region of Uganda. The investors want the elephant corridor for sugar cane, but is this wise?

In a global world of global media Acholiland has become very topical. For over 20 years the landowners had been forced into unsanitary encampments – and rural land belonged to wildlife. As the people who had been forced into the camps return to surrounding land, however, they are faced with new challenges – the increasing conflict with wildlife over living space and food.

People are being displaced again, not by marauding humans but this time by elephants. The people lose their crops, livestock, property, and sometimes their lives. The animals, which are already endangered, will likely be killed in retaliation or to prevent future conflicts. And, if solutions to conflicts are not adequate, local support for conservation also declines. In order to be truly effective, prevention of human-wildlife conflicts has to involve the full scope of society: international organizations, governments, NGOs and in particular the communities who bear the brunt of destruction to property.

Solutions are possible, but they need adequate financial backing for their support and development. The solutions can be species-specific and are best tailored to the area concerned. 

The Uganda constitution stipulates "The State shall protect important natural resources, including water, land, wetlands, minerals, oil, fauna and flora on behalf of the people of Uganda." This includes, of course, the African elephant - the largest living land animal and symbol of the African continent.

The African elephant is a "flagship" species of global significance whose conservation provides opportunities for protecting and maintaining biodiversity at large as well as increasing benefits to local communities. Owing to their role as "keystone" and "umbrella" species that help maintain the biodiversity of the ecosystems they inhabit, elephants and their conservation support critical cultural, scientific and aesthetic treasures, not only for African societies, but for the world at large.

Today, about half a million African elephants survive --down from untold millions-- and approximately 80% of elephant range falls outside national parks and protected areas. As African elephant ranges become more fragmented, however, elephant corridors are taken over for agriculture, infrastructure and settlements; elephants are increasingly confined into pockets of suitable habitat around which humans and elephants come into contact and conflict with each other.  

To the individuals who suffer this can be catastrophic, but compared to the costs of human disease and wars, the actual cost is relatively negligible.  Without doubt though, the effects of global climate change will worsen the conflict.

Human-elephant conflict will continue to be the bane of elephant conservation as long as there is no proper land use planning. With well informed land use planning there can be space for everyone, elephants included. Protecting corridors, creating buffer zones, provision of proper housing and investing in alternative land uses are just some of the solutions.

Electric fences and other barriers such as bee-hives and chilli-peppers, to prevent movement of elephants onto agricultural land, are increasingly important conservation tools. Human-Elephant Conflict has also often been used to mask more nefarious motives, such as ivory poaching and land acquisition.

In most African nations, the real benefits of elephant conservation far outweigh any costs. Elephants and people have shared land and life together for thousands of years sustainably. Without elephants, and without restoration of their former habitat, people will lose a huge cultural, ecological, and commercial asset.

Elephants live in a dynamic system of spatial use and grouping patterns. The group size in which an individual finds itself can change from day to day and seasonally, with small scattered groups typical in dry seasons and large aggregations more common in wet seasons.  

In areas of poaching or conflict with humans, the population range becomes restricted and large defensive elephant aggregations are evident.  Elephants range widely, do not hold territories and change their movement patterns according to availability of food resources and social opportunities.  The primary factors governing movements are food, water and sodium.  Males in musth - sexually active males - will seek oestrus females. Oestrus females also search for males when there are few adult males, thereby increasing the likelihood of gene flow between groups. A disruption to these movements could lead to population inbreeding.

In Acholiland, an age-old elephant corridor is under threat.  In the same vein the protectors of the corridor, whose totem is the elephant, are also under threat. The elephants were utilizing land, which "seemed" abandoned. The land is being degraded, deforested, there are no effective land use plans, and policies that do exist are flouted. We need to raise awareness of the values of maintaining elephant corridors and launch a campaign to save these elephants.

Few people, me included, will realize the benefit from the sugar plantation but many will profit from the green belts that are elephant corridors. And one simple thought: It is well known that certain crops are a lure to elephants - an olfactory advert for elephants to access easy food. Even a child can see it is unwise to plant an elephant delicacy in an elephant corridor.

Logic dictates that it is unwise to block an elephant path. Finally, whatever is triggering the elephants to stray, be it dumping of oil waste or land acquisition for sugar plantation, it is indisputable to say there is a problem and animals, especially elephants, tell a story.

Eve Lawino Abe Ph.D., is an ethologist and wildlife consultant

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