When elephants attack people

Fence in Uganda could stop human-wildlife conflict at Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park, says Ronald Musoke

Sunday 10 March 2019 21:09 GMT
(Marcus Westberg)

Elephants, one of the the most iconic of Africa's wildlife species, attract tourists by their thousands at the Queen Elizabeth National Park located in western region of the East African nation of Uganda. Residents in Kafuru, a small village near the eastern fringes of the park know this too.

MacLean Nagasha, a 17-year old student, says elephants are important because the government earns foreign exchange from the tourists. For her community, she says, the park provides firewood, thatching grass and timber.

However for other residents, like sixty year-old David Kwatampora, elephants represent anguish, pain and sorrow.

Kwatampora has been living here since 1972 and has witnessed the conflict between elephants and people for as long as he can remember.

He, like almost everybody here, practice small-scale farming, growing mostly cotton, maize, cassava and tomato

For years farmers in this region have suffered economic losses as their crops fail to make it to market after night raids by elephants and other wildlife such as buffalo.

(Marcus Westberg)

“The animals attack us every day,” says Jacob Baabo. Other residents such as Medias Kamarembo say that they can no longer rely on the the planned income from the sale of crops and have been forced to find other means of work.

Along the road between the park and the small farms are grass thatched huts used to keep watch over crops at night. It is said that in just one night of “crop raiding,” elephants can destroy whole farms, leaving the subsistence farmers desperate for food and money.

Fortunately, it appears, help has finally arrived for these residents.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has been constructing an electric fence between Kafuru village and the 1, 978 square kilometre Queen Elizabeth National Park since October 2018.

A seamless line of holes has been dug and round posts, each 3ft high, have been fixed with three lines of 2.55mm high tensile wires strung across the posts.

It is difficult to believe that this short and weak-looking fence can stop a buffalo, let alone an elephant.

Ibrahim Njenga, a Kenyan fence technician overseeing the work and also successfully worked on similar fences in Botswana, Gabon, and Kenya, says that the fence definitely works. He says fences are only needed in short stretches where human-elephant conflict is worst.

“Our research shows that building electrified fences is the most effective way to succeed. We have worked out that a short-post fence with long electrified outriggers works best,” says Njenga who has worked for the last eight years and his team of Ugandan fencers, mostly residents of Kafuru village.

Njenga further explains that the fence’s effectiveness in blocking elephants is built around “outriggers” that are wires that slant from the vertical posts at an angle of 45 degrees towards the direction the animal will most likely approach from.

He says when the system is switched on, electricity pulses of up to 9, 000 volts drawn from solar-powered energizers feed into the wires. Then, when the wires touch an elephant on the soft flesh of its chest or its trunk, the animal is shocked and forced to turn away before it can reach the posts to destroy the fence and the crops that lie beyond.

UWA officials say that while the fence is not constructed to prevent people from crossing, it will help to demarcate the park’s boundary more clearly and assist park rangers in enforcing security to curb poaching and stop further stop the illegal harvesting of natural resources from the park.

Space for Giants, is building close to 10km's of this fence with each kilometre costing an astounding $6, 000. Edward Asalu, the Chief Warden of Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area says that UWA’s plan is to erect an electric fence stretching over 100km and so far things are looking good.

A Ugandan supervisor of the fencing team also added that the electric fence has brought almost instant results saying the elephants had a particular course along which they would move and cross and destroy people’s farms but that has now stopped. A relief for residents here, who have experienced human-wildlife conflict for over 40 years.

The population of both elephants and human beings around the park has been increasing and that means that the human-wildlife conflict can only grow says Chief Warden Asalu. He says a recent airborne survey found close to 4, 000 elephants in the park.

“All around the park, we have a hard time controlling elephants,” he says, adding that UWA has in the past had even its own staff get killed during missions to scare away the elephants from the communities.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has also voiced his concern about the growing human-wildlife conflict around the country's conservation areas. Museveni is a founding member of the Giants Club, a conservation programme under Space for Giants that brings together political leaders, financiers, and scientists to endorse, fund, and implement elephant landscape protection projects. At a summit organised in Kenya in 2016, he called for a solution to the growing human-elephant conflict in Uganda.

Space for Giants' 10km electric fence is pegged to be completed by by the end of April. That is when its full effectiveness will be tested.

UWA has in the past come up with several interventions such as bee farming (bees irritate elephants) as well as digging trenches in the park’s hotspots to try to stop elephants from going into the communities. All these have come with little success perhaps owing to the high intelligence of elephants.

“We realised that these interventions were not adequate enough to handle this problem,” Asalu says.

The fence must also be maintained where it is damaged, to keep it effective.

This article is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a programme of the charity Space for Giants and supported by the owner of ESI Media, which includes independent.co.uk. It aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original story here

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