Neighbourhood disputes, models, and a harmonious coexistence with elephants

In my home country, Germany, we have cut down every bit of primeval forest. We hunted aurochs, brown bears, wolves, lynx and even beavers to extinction between the 17th and 19th centuries. After messing it all up like that, we now dare to tell other countries, that still hold on to their forests and wildlife, what to do with their nature.

“Don’t hunt those animals you used to hunt sustainably for centuries; we think they are so charismatic”. Currently, wolves are slowly coming back to Germany, and immediately people (successfully) changed laws to permit their shooting if they prey on sheep because it is “not bearable” to live in close coexistence with wild animals like that. Apparently, wolves don’t belong to Germany anymore because…yeah, because what? Because humans live here?

Now close your eyes and imagine you are a subsistence farmer. Oops, don’t close them, rather, continue reading! You can still imagine, though! Every day you’re working hard taking care of all the veggies and crops you planted to feed your family. One day you look up, and what you see is a massive giant, almost as tall as your house. That giant has destroyed everything you ever planted.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) drinking. Picture © Severin Racky (used with permission).

Happily munching on the last corn cob, the elephant greets you with an intimidating “HEI!”. Sounds absurd? Well, this scenario is much more realistic than our Western culture’s perception of African savannas as a vast untouched wilderness with Simba and all his large mammal friends living their best lives, without humans in the picture and without “HEI”, Human-Elephant-Interactions.

This perception of wild Africa has influenced our approach to mitigating HEI. A common attempt is to build physical barriers, such as fences, to separate humans and elephants, believing they could protect both parties. However, elephants are unbelievably strong and intelligent creatures, and they easily overcome these obstacles, leaving farmers caught in a perpetual battle to safeguard their livelihoods.

I have personally witnessed elephants knocking over trees onto “elephant-proof” electric fences to get to the other side. No fence can hold back a herd of determined elephants. Fences, therefore, cannot be the only solution when both humans and elephants need to get their food from the same land. It doesn’t stop with crop and infrastructure damage, though; Humans and elephants die through HEI. Elephants are killing around 500 humans per year and humans return the favour.

After bothering you with way too much bad news, at least I can tell you that science offers a glimmer of hope! Picture a team of brilliant minds huddled around computer screens, armed with data and determination. With powerful tools with mystical names like Agent-based modelling (ABM) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), ecologists are unravelling the complexities of HEI to help us understand human-elephant interactions better. With these tools, the researchers can simulate scenarios and explore the factors determining conflict incidents, to develop effective measures to reduce the conflicts and to mitigate poaching. The models are needed because, due to plenty of ethical problems, these kinds of experiments could not be conducted in real life.

In their study from 2021, Abel Mamboleo, Crile Doscher, and Adrian Paterson, from Lincoln University, simulated 18 scenarios, considering things like human population, elephant population, rivers, conservation corridors, and protected areas. They evaluated their impact on different HEI incidents, such as crop damage, human deaths, elephant deaths, and hidden impacts. The term “hidden impacts” refers to indirect consequences of HEI and includes fear restricting movements, missing school, or resulting health issues. For example, their “elephant-effects scenario (ES)” evaluated the effects of varying elephant populations on HEI, the “human-effects scenario (HES)” evaluated the effects of varying human populations on HEI, and the “environment-effects scenario” evaluated the effect of varying environmental parameters (distances to rivers, protected areas and corridors) on HEI.

Using their models, the scientists identified hidden impacts of HEI (e.g. fear and resulting health issues or restricted movements depending on elephants) as the most challenging incidents to mitigate. Interestingly, maintaining a greater distance from rivers seemed to effectively reduce those hidden impacts. Now who would have thought that?

Their model also indicated that most incidents of elephant crop damage occur within 1 km from rivers. Therefore, according to the model, it is possible to lower the risk of your crops being eaten and trampled by a grey giant by planting them further away from rivers (Yeah, good news!). Among the incidents studied, human deaths were found to be the easiest to reduce (more good news!). Fifteen out of the 18 scenarios lead to significantly fewer human deaths.

African elephants drinking and playing at a waterhole. Picture © Severin Racky (used with permission).

Distancing human activities from rivers, and creating conservation corridors and protected areas, seem to be an effective mitigation strategy. However, challenges remain. Reducing the deaths of elephants seems to be one of the most difficult tasks, with only six out of the 18 scenarios showing significantly fewer dead elephants. The number of elephant deaths was reduced in some scenarios, such as a so-called “ENS-River-Protect-Corridor”, in which the scientists modelled farms to be 7000 m away from rivers, protected areas and wildlife corridors.

While no single scenario that the scientists played through was able to completely eliminate all incidents, their modelling provided valuable insights and recommendations for potential strategies to reduce HEI. With their models, the researchers showed that HEI is influenced by many different factors beyond the pure numbers of humans and elephants. Geographical and environmental features, such as rivers, protected areas, and corridors, and socioeconomic activities, also play crucial roles. With the approach of creating safe distances between human activities and critical areas, the researchers found practical strategies to minimize the deaths of both humans and elephants.

The study’s findings, therefore, highlight the need to address the spatial relationship between humans and elephants and promote responsible settlement planning. Successful strategies for mitigating HEI require a holistic approach that balances the needs of both humans and elephants and prioritizes a healthy elephant population as well as the well-being of affected human communities.

It is important to emphasize that models are just a tool, implementing solutions still needs to be done by our big, juicy human brains. For example, in all scenarios, the model suggested to just lower the population size of humans and/or elephants to mitigate HEI. Fewer humans, fewer elephants: fewer human-elephant interactions. Of course, both options are far away from an ethical or recommendable solution. If the elephant density is extremely high, relocating them to other areas could be a (very complicated and expensive) option.

Wait a minute! Hey, German politicians, how come you haven’t thought about reducing the population size of humans in areas where the wolves are coming back? I heard many of us would love to live in New Zealand anyway. What about providing a free one-way ticket to New Zealand for every revengeful German sheep farmer who wants to kill wolves as a compensation measure?

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

Mamboleo, A. A., Doscher, C., & Paterson, A. (2021). A computational modelling approach to human-elephant interactions in the Bunda District, Tanzania. Ecological Modelling443, 109449. (

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