A giant pest problem: elephants in the backyard

New Zealand has a huge agricultural industry. It also has a pest problem. I myself have been out to a friends’ farm and was told to “squash a mouse if you see one”! Which I think we can all empathise with to an extent. When the little b*stards are eating your food, they might as well be infesting your wallet.

Image CC-BY-SA Diego Delso on Wikimedia Commons: Elephants and humans live in close contact in Africa

Now, think about scaling that up a couple of levels. You no longer have nuisance, albeit damaging, mice scurrying around your farm shed. Instead you have elephants, in herds of 11+, munching through entire fields and even ripping doors off your grain sheds. Stomping won’t quite suffice here (and may go the other way).

This is an issue that Abel Mamboleo and his PhD supervisors, Chile Doscher and Adrian Paterson, at Lincoln University investigated in their JOJ wildlife and Biology paper in 2020. Instead of the standard numbers, quantities and figures you may expect in a science paper, here they take a slightly alternative approach to the topic. What do people think is happening in their backyards? After all, fear and perceptions are powerful things.

To start with a bit of context – who are we talking about when referring to people? This study interacted with people in the region of Bunda, a very densely populated region in Tanzania. Much of its land is a part of the idyllic Serengeti ecosystem, and boasts an internationally renowned tourism hotspot.

Bunda location within Tanzania – right next to the Serengeti: Image CC-BY-SA Macabe 5387 on Wikimedia commons

These people rely heavily on farming. In fact, 80% of annual income in Bunda comes from this industry. You can imagine how devastating it is to have these creatures, as amazing and majestic as elephants may be, decimate their fields of crops.

Elephants eating crops is not a new story. In fact, there are even somewhat humorous accounts of elephants eating rotten fruit in orchards and getting themselves rather drunk in the process. Thieving behaviour may even be tolerated – these giants are big money for tourism. However, in this particular context, such interactions are becoming more and more problematic. In this area, as the human population grows, human-elephant interactions also increase.

Mamboleo went to this area to ask local people their thoughts about these interactions. Using interviews and questionnaires in local languages to ensure clear messages, they found that 88% of those asked thought these human-elephant interactions were on the increase. Furthermore, 79% of respondents reported these events were most common on farms.

This in and of itself is not necessarily an issue. Local people had described the elephants as generally ‘docile’ and can even be safely approached to within 50 m. In the past, farmers have sometimes been able to simply scare elephants away themselves using traditional techniques, such as patrolling and fencing. Elephant ‘friendliness’ has even been suggested in other parts of Africa, with some suggesting elephants are going as far as to domesticate themselves. However, now, elephants are beginning to ignore these scaring techniques, some becoming bolder and potentially more dangerous.

How is this affecting people?

You can begin to see how conflicts between elephants and humans are likely to grow, with 32% of people thinking that elephants will react to seeing a person by killing them, and guarding crops being a main way for these people to protect their livelihoods. And for another large minority, 42% of those asked, they experienced elephants simply continuing to eat their crops in the presence of humans. Evidently, these people don’t have effective tools to deter elephants and protect their farms.

Extreme measures: what to do next?

We can see how people would be having a hard time with their elephant neighbours here. But what about the elephants?

Elephants are protected in Tanzania. The people of Bunda know this. However, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Therefore, occasionally, when an elephant is raiding crops, people may turn to lethal measures. Whilst few people who were interviewed list this as a response to seeing elephants raiding crops, Mamboleo raises the valid point that this number could be higher. Local people know that there could be consequences of authorities finding that illegal elephant kills had taken place in the Bunda region.

Elephants & mice – really that different? Image by GlobalP from iStock

This may seem like a drastic response. However, killing pests such as rats, rabbits and mice that eat crops in NZ doesn’t seem so drastic, does it? Of course, this is a very different situation – elephants are native to this area, and are endangered and protected. But this comparison does make you realise that wanting to kill the problem can be a fairly universal response.

Mamboleo notes that cheap responses can be turned to in the absence of timely support from conservation authorities…so what can be done about that?

Well, there are some cool things being done across Africa to help with these conflicts. For example, do you know that elephants are scared of bees? Who’d have thought. Some projects actually exist to build bee hives around fences to keep elephants away, and this seems to work pretty well. It also turns out that elephants don’t like spicy food – so chilli can be used in a similar way.

More ideas, such as this would, be very useful to help in these situations. Answering questions such as when are elephants most likely to visit the farms may also be helpful for targeted responses, Mamboleo says.

Knowing how people feel, how they’re responding to the situation, and what they need to do to help them resolve the situation for the best outcomes for people and wildlife is a great first step here. That’s the valuable context needed to now take the next steps and make solutions that will work. Especially when we can’t just stomp on the problem!

This article was prepared by Master of International Nature Conservation student Sally Sinclair as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

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