Understanding Conflict: The Elephants and Bees in Murchison Falls, Uganda
Field report by Ewan Brennan, Mobile Unit Leader & Project Logistics Manager
Human-elephant conflict is always a complex problem. Factors such as land history, farming practices, education, geography and rainfall can all interplay to result in a dynamic and dangerous conflict scenario that can be detrimental to the balance of both communities and elephants living together in peace. Elephant impacts on livelihoods, food security and personal safety can understandably lead to communities becoming intolerant of the wildlife with which they share the land. Unsustainable alternatives for income – charcoal burning, bushmeat snaring and poaching – are a common result. The question then arises of who is to blame for the suffering that results from HEC. Is it the elephants? Is it the communities? The wildlife authority? That is an almost unanswerable question and in most cases, not a helpful one. The last good option remains – for communities, governments and organisations to find solutions for coexistence between elephants and rural communities. This is exactly the directive of Save The Elephants’ Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program and our The Elephants and Bees Project.
This is the story for communities living and farming just North of Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. The boundary between the National Park and community land is defined along a narrow tar road and entirely unfenced. It is only within the last two decades that communities have begun to resettle following major instabilities in the region between the 1970s and 1990s. Sparsely distributed small-scale farms grow maize, rice, peanuts and fruits in the fertile soil, and combined with reliable rainfall it makes for ideal farming conditions. On the other hand, dense forest patches, a network of gullies and an overstretched wildlife authority make for ideal crop-raiding conditions too. To complicate matters further, five oil drilling platforms and an eight-meter wide tar road are being constructed through the centre of the National Park, the huge disturbance pushing elephants and wildlife towards the park boundaries. Many farmers struggle to harvest at all due to crop raiding, and community tolerance is very low. Poaching, snaring and charcoal burning are widespread, and sighting elephants with ‘half trunks’ after being caught in snares is an all too common occurrence.
However, there are a dedicated few individuals trying to turn things around for both the communities and the elephants in North Murchison. Dr Jo Hill of Rutgers University has embarked on post-doc research project striving to understand the basis of crop-raiding behaviour in Murchison’s elephants and how it impacts communities and wildlife. Plans for identifying the worst offenders and fitting these crop-raiders with satellite tracking collars are underway and should offer an invaluable insight into both the nature of this human-elephant conflict and potential solutions.
The Uganda Conservation Foundation, supported by WildAid, has been trialing an innovative new elephant crop raiding deterrent known as the ‘Smelly Repellent’. Led by local Ernest Oniba and Maz Robertson from WildAid, a foul – although harmless – a mixture of ground chilli pepper, animal manure, eggs, neem tree and oil is cooked into a watery soup before being strained and sprayed onto crops. Oniba has been managing the trial on 40 farms within the area and initial results are impressively successful. Many farmers are once again able to harvest their crops and are slowly starting to realise that farming is possible in areas inhabited by elephants.
Supported by the incredible donation from Glassbaby, Dr Lydia Tiller and Ewan Brenna from Save The Elephants were able to visit Dr Hill and Ernest Oniba in North Murchison to learn more under our umbrella of The Elephants and Bees Mobile Unit. Presentations to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, UCF and Dr Hill’s research team, visits to project sites, discussions with community farmers and strategising on ongoing research and future collaboration efforts all contributed to a highly productive and successful visit. It quickly became apparent that human-elephant conflict in Murchison North is severe and in need of further intervention to alleviate the impacts felt by both communities and wildlife. With a new perspective and understanding, the Elephants and Bees Mobile Unit team was thrilled to open up a new avenue of collaboration. Plans are already underway to develop the prospects for a harmonious coexistence between communities and elephants in both North Murchison and Sagalla. Watch this space!