The elephants are coming

Who would have thought that vuvuzelas could still come in handy? Daniel Kabala is happy he still has one to blast on. Not for football; but because it keeps the elephants away from the village maize fields. It will be harvest time soon in the Caprivi, and a blast at three in the morning is a call to arms against the gigantic plunderers.

Elephants just hate vuvuzelas. Maybe it’s because they like their own trumpeting better, or their fine-tuned senses can’t stand the tuneless din. Daniel knows one thing: when he gives a blast on his bright red plastic tube, the elephants disappear and the crops are safe. The gigantic robbers prefer to come at night, and in just five minutes they can destroy a maize field says Daniel’s sister Rebecca. Elephants eat up to 350 kilos each a day.

Rebecca is furious. In February a herd of elephants ate her entire field. She pulls her baby higher up her back and asks “What should the family eat? Someone should shoot the elephants, but for that you go to prison.” Daniel has a different point of view. Elephants have always lived here, he reasons, and he can thank the marauding herds for his job: the village pays him to keep watch.

Conflict between farmers and wildlife is nothing new in the Caprivi or the rest of Namibia. But the ever growing areas under cultivation have forced the elephants into even smaller spaces, like around Ngonga village. Sometimes there are deaths on either side.

Is there a solution to the problem? Or must elephants give way to the relentless march of mankind, and disappear forever? Some wildlife and environmental experts believe they have found a way out of the problem. It goes by the name of KAZA, standing for Kavango-Zambezi trans-frontier area and named after the two main rivers that flow between the neighbouring countries of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. The low lying floodlands are home to buffalo, hippos and elephants, to name just the larger species in the lush area.

KAZA is set to become a huge trans-border wildlife conservation area; the largest on the continent and “the most important wildlife conservation area in the world” according to the WWF, including 36 national parks, protected areas and conservancies that will bind together an uninterrupted corridor where wildlife can roam.

It isn’t an entirely new idea, but it could usher in a new era of wildlife protection. The trick is to include local people in the planning and running of the conservation area. In the past, national parks were separated from where people lived, and brought no benefit to villagers like Daniel and Rebecca. It was the same story when private investors set up lodges and safari operations. It seemed as if the previous colonial masters still reaped all the benefits, while the locals suffered the losses.

Protecting wildlife is one half of the equation, the other is bringing investment that will benefit the region’s inhabitants. It’s development through wildlife conservation, and the figures are as enormous as the elephants seem to the locals. “The area is as big as Germany, over 350,000 square kilometres,” says WWF biologist Phillip Göltenboth. Money will flow in from various international sources, including 20 million Euros from the KfW, the German development bank. In August this year the five African countries involved will sign a formal agreement, providing a solid foundation for the KAZA project.

So what’s in it for the villagers? Wildlife biologist Russell Taylor puts it simply: “Conservation works when people see that they have better lives with the elephants than without them.” And he points to Namibia’s example, where villages have come together to form communal conservancies which have rights over wildlife, and benefit directly from income paid by trophy hunters and tourists.

There is no contradiction here. Trophy animals may only be shot according to quotas set by the government. A rich American or European may shoot one elephant, but the whole cost of the safari and hunting right may amount to US$ 60,000, most of which goes to the conservancy, which in turn employs game guards who prevent poaching. Wildlife numbers actually increase.

Hunting, photo safaris, eco-lodges in which conservancies have a stake; all of these provide jobs and bring income to villages to spend on schools, boreholes and other worthwhile infrastructure.

Minister of Environment and Tourism, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, is fully committed to the project, but says one thing must be clear: people should not have to wait too long to see the benefits. And they are more likely to come from tourism than agriculture, according to Ralf Kadel, an agronomist working for the KfW. For a start, large scale agriculture would rob households of water. Looking at tourism, the number of visitors to southern Africa is likely to grow by 6% a year. But will they come to the KAZA area?

There are risks to the project. Parts of southern Angola are still mined, and government has a slender hold on development there after 20 years of civil war. Zimbabwe has slid steadily backwards economically under Mugabe’s rule. But there is a good chance of success, according to the KfW’s Kadel, and Namibia’s communal conservancies are a model. Already 17% of Namibia is under communal conservancy management.

Botswana is very interested in the prospects for the future, and that’s because of the sheer amount of elephants in southern Africa. According to elephant researcher Mike Chase, in 15 years the Botswanan elephant population will double. “Shooting them is just not possible. Public opinion just won’t stand for it, and anyway, the elephants will just have more calves to compensate.” Chase looks across the river from the Chobe National Park where too many elephants are concentrated and most of the trees have been ripped down for food. “The (eco)system is close to collapse. KAZA offers the opportunity for elephants to spread out into Zambia and Angola. But that can only succeed if the people there reap the benefits from nature conservation.”

Elephants came to Botswana to flee the civil war. Now they can go back, says Chase. He believes that single bulls play a major role by testing out territory and ‘reporting’ back to others in the herd. At the end of the Angolan civil war Chase counted just 38 elephants there. Now there are over 8,000. “They even negotiate minefields,” says Chase, although he doesn’t know how. Elephants are mysterious creatures, but Chase is certain that if they are allowed to wander widely again that everybody will benefit, and that the trees along the Chobe river will grow again.

Arne Perras
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