WITH more than 83 000 elephants against a carrying capacity of around 56 000, Zimbabwe is the second biggest home to elephants in the world after neighbouring Botswana. While a success for conservation, elephants often wander out of Hwange National Park into nearby
Binga farmlands where they eat or trample farmers’ crops, devastating local food security and livelihoods.
This evokes fear and anger in farmers who have to witness their crops constantly destroyed.
In the previous harvest season, Bigboy Nkiwane (17), spent most of his time protecting the remnants of his family’s wilting maize crop from further destruction by elephants, at the expense of studying.
“Life is unbearable because of these elephants which destroyed our crops. Elephants eat a lot. They are messy eaters, uprooting and scattering as much as eating. A single elephant makes light work of a hectare of crops in a very short time”, said Bigboy, who lives with his parents.
He told B-Metro that on the one hand they are worried about hunger because of crop failure, while on the other they count the losses stray elephants are causing daily.
“We also fear the elephants might kill us or demolish our pole-and-mud huts,” said Bigboy. Despite attempts by the villagers to scare away the elephants, he said bull elephants would sometimes charge at the villagers, who are no match for an elephant.
Bigboy added that marauding elephants that escape from the Hwange National Park, destroyed hopes among them of a future successful harvest.
“The authorities should save us from this ordeal,” Bigboy said, referring to the National Parks Authority, which is responsible for managing animals.
As the world’s largest terrestrial mammal, the African elephant is an iconic species. Populations are found in 37 sub-Saharan African countries. African elephants are renowned not only for their large body size, but also for their ecological impacts and complex social structure.
They are also important seed dispersers and cause trophic cascades that impact community composition and nutrient cycling. Elephants have both ecological and cultural importance. They are known as ecosystem’s engineer and gardener. They play a vital role in forest enhancement by disbursing seeds and creating an environment for germination.
Dung of elephant plays a crucial role in nutrient cycling by providing nutrients to the soil that is ultimately used by the flora. It is also a good source of food for many insect species. It is well understood that elephants play a key role, particularly in maintaining diversity of flora and fauna, and regenerating the forest environments.
However, as human and elephant populations grow in Zimbabwe, elephants increasingly leave parks to eat farmers’ crops while foraging, which creates epicentres of human-elephant conflict. This conflict compromises farmers’ food and economic security, impedes elephant conservation initiatives, and threatens the safety of humans and elephants.
Throughout many communities in Binga, various types of human-elephant conflicts occur including: property destruction, poaching, resource competition, habitat fragmentation, and crop-raiding.
In addition to directly undermining farmers’ economic and food security, successfully preventing crop-raiding often requires diligent field guarding to scare away elephants.
Unfortunately, children are often needed to protect these fields. This responsibility detrimentally impacts children’s access to education.
According to research, sixty percent of survey households reported children under the age of eighteen guarding crops. The majority of children guarded crops two days a week (presumably on non-school days); however, other children guarded crops three-to-seven days a week during the peak-raiding season.
“Sometimes I don’t go to school during harvest time because I just have to guard the crops. This year it’s very bad because I still have to sit for my O-level exams. There is really nothing I could do than to guard the crops because my parents are now elderly,” said Bigboy.
According to the International Elephant Foundation elephant crop raiding is especially serious for farmers living adjacent to protected areas; these farmers consider elephants to be one of the most serious causes of crop damage.
For example, one study assessed the frequency and severity of crop-raiding damage caused by a wide variety of species. They found that although signs of elephants were minimal, the majority of participants reported that elephants damaged their crops (84%) and soil (71%).
Elephant crop-raiding is problematic for farmers due to its severity rather than its frequency. This is because even if elephants do not crop-raid a farm very often, one visit can compromise a farmer’s successful harvest for that season.
Large, poorly guarded farms are most susceptible to elephant crop-raiding. In just one night, a family group, which averages nine elephants, can destroy a farmer’s entire field. Elephant crop-raiding behaviour varies seasonally, and the period of most severe crop-raiding is often during peak ripening, just before crops are ready to harvest. This poses a serious threat to subsistence farmers’ economic stability and undermines their earning potential.
In the face of increasing human-elephant farming conflict, conservationists are searching for effective strategies to improve human-elephant co-existence.
Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) head of communications Tinashe Farawo, revealed that an increasing number of animals were straying from the game parks into nearby communities in search of food and water, leading to cases of human-wildlife conflicts that resulted in the death of 33 people last year alone.
“Since the beginning of 2020, human-wildlife conflict has claimed at least 20 people, dozens of others have been permanently disabled while swathes of crops have been destroyed by the menacing animals — especially elephants. It is important to note that of the 20 deaths recorded since January 2020, 10 are human-elephant conflicts while the balance is shared among other mammals and predators namely, lions, buffaloes and crocodiles.
“In one of the incidents, a 29-year-old Gokwe woman was killed by an elephant in full view of her mother, some 50 metres from her homestead”, said Farawo.
He indicated further challenges of elephant-human conflict.
“In terms of human-wildlife conflict that is exacerbated by the sharp human population growth, there is a need to appreciate that our country’s human population increased from 7 million in 1980 to the current +/-15 million and the land is not expanding.
“As such, human encroachment in the form of settlement expansion, crop cultivation, livestock grazing, poaching of wildlife resources, mostly triggering a change of land uses are all human-induced activities straddling beyond protected area buffer zones and boundaries, thus posing much pressure on limited space for wildlife activities.”