Appeal: How to keep an elephant out of a cabbage patch

Africa's wildlife may be beautiful; it can also be deadly. Helping those who live with it to manage it more safely can benefit both man and beast. Report by Michael McCarthy
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The Independent Online

It was a horrifying end for Poniso Chikalila, and the fact that he was only 12 makes it seem even worse. In the late afternoon of 27 August last year he went out collecting firewood with a group of friends near his village of Kongola, in the Caprivi province of north-eastern Namibia, and the group had the misfortune - as misfortune it often is in this part of Africa - to encounter a party of elephants.

It was a horrifying end for Poniso Chikalila, and the fact that he was only 12 makes it seem even worse. In the late afternoon of 27 August last year he went out collecting firewood with a group of friends near his village of Kongola, in the Caprivi province of north-eastern Namibia, and the group had the misfortune - as misfortune it often is in this part of Africa - to encounter a party of elephants.

Some say the boys threw stones at the elephants, others that they were merely watching them. Whatever the case, there is no doubt about what came next: an elephant went for Poniso, picked him up with his trunk and beat him around a small tree. Then, after thrashing him a number of times, the animal repeatedly gored him with a tusk; when it moved off and his friends could get to him, Poniso was dead.

How do we in the West think of elephants? Majestic? Magnificent? Stately? Splendid? Surely they are all these things, but as the world's largest land mammals they are also capable, in the wild, of quite terrifyingly violent aggression which, if directed at humans, is invariably fatal. And it is this aspect, rather than our generally benign view of them as charismatic and fascinating, that is the reality for impoverished African subsistence farmers who have to live alongside them day by day.

Travel through rural areas of African countries with substantial elephant populations and you will meet many people with their personal elephant stories, told in hushed tones. They are almost always of just two sorts: people's narrow escapes, or their brutal deaths. In Britain we tend to forget: elephants are dangerous in the extreme. They kill a lot of people every year.

And they don't just kill. They need to consume huge amounts of vegetable matter daily. Usually this comes from trees and bushes growing wild, but sometimes its source is people's vegetable and fruit gardens, or farmers' fields. A fence does not appear to have been made that can keep hungry elephants out of a field, and once in, they trash it: an acre or more of crops that may have been months of food for a family can vanish in a night. Then there is their need for water - a need where they are in direct competition with farmers.

In their urge to get to a water point - a well, a borehole, a pump - elephants will do damage to protective structures that is scarcely believable, knocking down walls and machinery that people cannot afford to rebuild. It's not only elephants. Buffalos will trash crop fields just as effectively, and kill you. Lions will kill your livestock, and kill you too.

For anyone who loves Africa's wildlife, and feels that it is one of the world's great natural wonders and wants to conserve it, it comes as a shock to realise that for the people who have to scratch a living on the same patch of ground, some of it is a royal pain in the neck. It can be the end of them. Yet, as The Independent has been reporting over the past two weeks, a growing number of conservationists believe that Africa's wildlife can only be saved in the coming century by being handed over to local people themselves to manage as a resource. Only if they have a stake in it, the feeling is, will they have an inclination to preserve it; otherwise the continent's wild animals will be swallowed up by the desperate needs of its soaring populations.

How, though, are such people to be expected to look after animals that may ruin or even kill them, or at the least, prevent their children from walking along the road to school? This conundrum, hardly given a thought by western safari tourists, is perceived for the real difficulty that it is by IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), the Namibian wildlife-and-communities charity which is one of the subjects of this year's Independent Christmas appeal.

"What's the worst problem you will get from a wild animal in Britain?" says Richard Diggle, IRDNC's co-ordinator in Caprivi. "Perhaps a muntjac deer coming into your garden and eating your rose petals? But here you can easily lose your livelihood, or lose your life."

He points out that the area he covers has a population of about 30,000, about the size of Winchester, and on average, three people a year are killed in it by wild animals. "If three people a year were killed by dogs in Winchester, there would be a national uproar in Britain."

IRDNC's answer is to make it a big issue - "problem animals" - and tackle it in a structured way. The machinery to do so is at hand in Namibia's wildlife conservancies, the dozens of official bodies the Government has set up in the past six years, with IRDNC's help, to allow local communities to generate income from wildlife while at the same time helping to preserve it. Problem-animal experts are employed by many of them.

It is a full-time job in an area like Caprivi, a wildlife-rich corner of Africa where five countries meet (Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana). Caprivi lies in the path of the greatest of all herds of African elephants, a total of more than 120,000 animals which congregate in northern Botswana and frequently come in groups over the border. As a result, some Caprivi villages almost feel as if they are in a state of siege from marauding big game.

Take the figures for just one, Malengalenga: 2002 - fields destroyed by elephants, 69; cattle killed by lions and other predators, 104; 2003 - fields destroyed, 12; cattle killed, 96; 2004 (up till November) - fields destroyed, 7; cattle killed 10. The signs of an improvement may be due to the IRDNC problem-animal expert for the village, Lister Mutabelezi, 41, a slightly built man who has survived a hand-to-hand fight with a lion (it's a long story).

As shooting elephants in normal circumstances is against the law in Namibia, Mr Lister spends his time devising ways of keeping them away from crops. Tried so far: fire - they got used to it; clapping hands - ditto; beating drums - they got used to that; shooting into the air - they got used to that too; and electric fences - after three months they learnt to push them down with branches. Indefatigably optimistic, Lister's latest wheeze is a barrier of chilli pepper mixed with elephant dung. "We have high hopes for this," he said. He also tries to make sure cattle are carefully locked in their kraals every night to minimise lion attacks.

When precautions fail, and livestock are killed and fields trashed, what then? Why should people not rage against the wild animals that are ruining them, and take the law into their own hands?

IRDNC has another potential answer: it has been funding and trialling in the Caprivi wildlife conservancies, under Richard Diggle's direction, a novel form of problem-animal compensation scheme, where conservancy members can receive recompense for loss and damage so long as they have followed precautionary guidelines, and their claims can be verified. Such schemes have failed in other African countries because they have been done at a national level; people are tempted to over-exploit them with fraudulent claims which are hard to prove or disprove, and so the schemes go bankrupt.

But the point about IRDNC's project is that it is local, and it will eventually involve the conservancies using their members' own money, and their own game guards for verification: where is the carcass? Where is the spoor of the lion that is supposed to have done this?

It seems to be working, and not just for loss and damage. In the case of Poniso Chikalila last year, the conservancy, of which his father, Dickson, was a member, speedily paid out from the pilot compensation scheme the £500 cost of his funeral. It won't bring back a son, but neither is it nothing. And it may be the way of the future, as IRDNC struggles to mitigate clashes between humans and animals, and to avoid the alienation of local people in Africa from the wildlife that only they may be able to protect.