February 2019 Newsletter

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From Uganda, we heard reports this month of farmers in despair, on the edge of Murchison Falls National Park, as elephants destroyed their crops. Some 1,000 people in Oyam District say that elephants have been raiding their fields continuously since November. One child has been killed. Livelihoods have been destroyed. “I will remain forever poor since government is not taking any action to protect us from these stray elephants” lamented one farmer. He will take no consolation in hearing that he is not alone. We hear the same stories, from Gabon to Tanzania, from Botswana to Nigeria. Human-Elephant Conflict, (HEC), it seems, has never been worse.  What hope is there for elephant conservation if the animals are feared, even despised, by the people who live alongside them?

From Kenya, a report in the Star newspaper gives clues as to what is happening. Farmers in Taita-Taveta County, near Tsavo East National Park, say that elephants have ‘basically settled’ in an agricultural area, and are refusing to move. The animals have lost their fear of people, and aggressively raid houses in search of grain and other foods. Schools are disrupted, people are terrified, and there’s growing anger with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) for not doing more to move the elephants on. It’s true that the number of elephants in the Tsavo Conservation Area has grown, from approximately 11,100 in 2014 to 12,900 in 2017.  But Tsavo has contained many more elephants in the past; as many as 35,000 in the late 1960s. The real change, according to KWS officials, is to land-use around Tsavo. Areas that were once elephant migration routes have been settled. Elephants that have historically moved in and out of Tsavo now find their routes are cut. Some are stranded in what has recently become agricultural land. Even some of the underpasses beneath the Nairobi-Mombasa Railway, specifically set aside for migrating elephants, have been blocked by newly-built houses.  

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The big picture is clear. The 22 countries in the world with the fastest birth rates are all in Africa, (all of them are elephant range states, except Burundi and Gambia, which have already lost their elephants). Uganda’s population, currently estimated at 43 million, is projected to be 105 million by 2050 (UN). By then, Tanzania is projected to have 129 million, and Kenya almost 100 million people. In other words, the problem of Human-Elephant Conflict is not going away. In fact, its magnitude may soon make the ivory poaching crisis seem like a marginal distraction to a much bigger question; is there space for elephants on an increasingly crowded continent?  

The success of the EPI, but much more importantly, the African elephant itself, depends on the answer.