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Chilli bombs and honeybees: Weapons in Tanzania’s human-elephant conflict

Kilimanjaro & Arusha Regions, Tanzania – Mwana Athumani Msemo’s homestead sits encased in the undulating grasslands that surround Mount Kilimanjaro, an area so quiet and remote that clucking and bleating from her chicken and goat farm are the only sounds to be heard for kilometres.

The landscape, with its crisp air and lush greens, holds glorious beauty. But for Msemo, it also holds ever-present anguish. It was somewhere in this wilderness that her husband took their cattle out to graze one afternoon two years ago and never returned. By the time the village search team found him at the end of a long trail of elephant footprints, it was dark and he had been dead for hours – a gaping hole where his stomach once was.

“He left me with five kids,” the 55-year-old said in Swahili, sitting in her living room, her hands over her face. A sob escaped her pursed lips even as she pulled the scarf hanging on her head across her mouth to stifle it.

“When he was here, things were easy, the cattle were there. Now, the cattle are no longer there. The kids are growing – they’ve finished school but they don’t have jobs.”

Across Tanzania, an East African country bursting with jungles and wildlife, expanding human populations are encroaching more and more on wildlife spaces, putting people on a collision course with roaming animals in increasingly fatal events.

In many rural communities like Ngulu Kwakoa, which sits near a wildlife corridor, the most common are clashes with elephants –  animals that must migrate in search of food and that can turn from gentle giants to charging aggressors in an instant.

The giant mammals are a massive pain for farmers, too.

Across Msemo’s back yard, past the simple grave where her husband now rests, and down a steep path, her neighbour’s maize farm lies in ruins.

“Elephants visited last night,” Shangwel Mdee, 47, croaked, as she stood, hands on hips, among the ravaged stalks, inspecting the damage.

Farmer Mdee’s maize farm was destroyed by visiting elephants the previous night [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

The animals breached a fence built with spiky branches and went straight for the nearly matured corn crops. In the rows of bean crops that had just started sprouting flowers, giant footsteps were still visible.

“I was expecting to harvest it in two weeks,” Mdee said. Raids like these happen almost yearly, but the hurt every time is fresh, she said. “I’ve lost it all.”

A continent-wide problem

Across the continent, animal clashes with villagers close to national parks or wildlife migratory routes have been rising in recent years, researchers say.

As Africa’s population leaped by one billion between 1950 and 2020, elephant populations have fallen and recovered at the same time, creating competition for food, water and space.

A worsening drought that has shrunk food and water resources for elephants across East Africa has also pushed elephants out further from their designated parks and protected areas, forcing them into human settlements like Ngulu Kwakoa.

Elephants walk in Kenya
Elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya [File: Tony Karumba/AFP]

Experts say it’s hard to pin down the exact number of continent-wide human-elephant conflict cases – which encompasses a range of negative interactions.

“I’ve worked on it for years and my team has struggled because you’ve got such nuances in human-elephant conflict,” said Lucy King, a researcher with Save the Elephants, a nonprofit based in southern Kenya.

“Some conflicts are simple interactions. People are so terrified, but nothing happens. But from our network, we feel there’s a genuine rise in conflict. It feels that it’s rising and it’s rising quite fast – faster than we can get on top of.”

For many, elephants elicit fierce affection. Their numbers plummeted in Africa from 1.3 million in the 1970s to 415,000, largely due to poaching for their valuable ivory tusks. Countries have since cracked down on poachers but drought, habitat loss and conflict with humans have emerged as threats, meaning elephant species continue to be endangered.

But for those living close to them, the megaherbivores draw anger. Elephants gobble up to 450kg of forage a day, drink up to 190 litres of water and need space to roam.

However, with more villages, farms, roads and other infrastructure propping up in their territory and fragmenting their habitat, they are forced into human territories – often those of poor rural dwellers who depend on subsistence farming for their survival. A single raid on a farm hosting elephant favourites like maize or juicy tomatoes could wipe out a year’s worth of food.

Often, villagers grazing their cattle or looking for firewood also encounter the animals in the wilderness. Although usually peaceful, elephants can attack people when they feel threatened, tossing their victims in the air or trampling and crushing them.

To protect themselves, aggrieved villagers have been known to hunt down the mammals or poison water and food sources in anticipation of a raid.

Countries with the biggest elephant populations are also among the worst hit by clashes, including Zimbabwe, with 100,000 elephants. Poor governance and sanctions in the Southern African country make it a “peak conflict site”, King said, with authorities there lacking funds to roll out strategies to separate wildlife corridors from settlements.

Tanzania (with 60,000 elephants) and neighbouring Kenya (with 35,000) are also badly hit. In Kenya, authorities report having to kill between 50 to 120 elephants a year because they have attacked humans.

Elephant killed by Kenya wildlife services
An elephant was killed by Kenya Wildlife Service rangers after it killed a woman as it was looking for water and food amid a drought, in Loolkuniyani, Samburu County in Kenya [File: Brian Inganga/AP]

Are there possible solutions?

Finding solutions to elephant-human conflicts must focus on expanding and freeing up wildlife corridors, so the animals can roam more freely without encountering humans, analysts say.

“These are the main things, and on the side, we can look for mitigation measures to help people live more peacefully with the animals,” said King.

In Tanzania, some have taken to filling up rubber condoms with chilli powder – a spice the elephants hate – and hauling it at raiding invaders like bombs. Others use sound as a means of distraction, beating loudly on steel buckets at intervals to scare elephants away.

Some six hours west of the Kilimanjaro region, communities are scaling another method pioneered by King herself, with the help of an unlikely character – tiny honeybees.

In her research, King found that elephants are mightily scared of bees. Stings on the sensitive insides of their trunks, the sides of their mouths, and behind their ears are so painful, that the intelligent animals know to scram when they hear the buzz of a hive.

Playing on that fear, King came up with the idea to position bees strategically around farms and realised that it could deter elephants from going ahead with raids. After testing the method in Kenya, the researcher created a manual and published it so that conservationists from Tanzania to India are now making use of it.

In Upper Kitete, a village bordering the majestic Ngorongoro Conservation Area, elephants are regular visitors. But since 2019 when conservationists have been hanging up beehives on wooden poles and then ringing them around farms like a fence, fewer of the mammals have been visiting, said John Massay, who grew up there and now collects data for Wild Survivors, a nonprofit based in the UK.

bee hive fence in Tanzania
A beehive fence stretches into the distance in Upper Kitete Village, Arusha region, Tanzania [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

On a recent evening, Massay set out to inspect progress on one farm.

The beehive boxes hanging on wires stretched into the distance, guarding the sprouting bean and millet crops. A tractor hummed nearby as he inspected first a camera trap and then the bee boxes.

“The elephant raids have reduced but they haven’t stopped totally,” the researcher said. Still, the gains have been significant. Monthly raids went from 62 in 2020 to 15 in 2023, according to the team’s data.

At least one elephant had breached a part of the fence just hours ago and stamped through the farms, Massay said, pointing to giant footprints in the dark soil. Often, a stubborn adult male wanders onto a fenced farm, heedless of a possible bee attack. That’s because solitary males have fewer warning gears and are likely to take risks, as opposed to the reasoned and safe decisions that a family led by a matriarch would take.

Elephant near bee fence
A camera trap photo shows a foraging elephant approaching the bee-hive fence [Hand out/Wildlife Survivors]

In total, some 3.5km of hanging beehives have gone up in Upper Kitete. With every kilometre of fence that springs up, though, the problem is transferred to other communities, as more elephants – finding that bees are standing guard here – seek other unprotected farms.

“That’s why we want to keep extending the fence,” Massay said.

The bees have created additional income streams for some in Upper Kitete.

Delphina Barnabas, who heads the Nari women’s collective – named after the acacia tree the group first met under – says the honey that farmers sell to them from the beehives is now being packaged and sold across Tanzania.

In the off-season, when there are no beehives to process, the women plant vegetables on the piece of land behind their hub. The money from the honey and the farm goes into a fund which members can get loans from.

Women of a honey collective meet at their hub
Women of the Nari collective gather at their hub in Upper Kitete, Arusha region, Tanzania [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

Waiting for help

In localities like Ngulu Kwakoa, where beehive fences and chilli bomb solutions have not yet arrived, people must continue existing alongside roaming tembo – as elephants are called in Swahili.

Although retaliation is tempting, it is illegal, and punishment is severe.

To discourage residents from attacking elephants, and to crack down on poachers, Tanzanian authorities introduced strict penalties for killing animals: at least a two-year jail term for killing wildlife, while poachers get no less than 20-year sentences. So even when villagers feel aggrieved, they cannot attack animals. Rather, they must inform officials of the Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) who kill or capture aggressive elephants.

Authorities also pay compensation of about $300 to families of victims who have died from elephant attacks, and to farmers whose crops or other property has been destroyed if they can provide proof of the damage. But some say the compensation either does not arrive or is infrequent.

Msemo in her homestead
Mwana Athumani Msemo lost her husband to an elephant attack years ago and is waiting for compensation from the government [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

Msemo says after TANAPA officials took her husband’s body to the morgue and returned him in a wooden coffin, she has heard nothing else from the government.

“It’s like cattle died, the way they treated my husband’s death,” she said. “Even to say they’re sorry, the government has not done that. This is three years since all that happened.”

Peter Gilead, 39, echoes Msemo’s anger.

The shoemaker was forced to give up his lucrative business in Nairobi and return home after his father was killed by an elephant in August 2022 while on grazing duty. On his arm is the tattoo of the culprit, a constant, painful reminder.

He is sure he’d seen the animal once, its tusk now broken. He could have retaliated. But more than revenge, it is the burden of caring for his mother and six younger siblings that occupies him.

“When you kill an elephant, they’ll charge you but when the animal kills our loved ones, they only give you a casket,” Gilead said, referring to TANAPA. “I can’t say the money will restore the life of our loved one, but at least to do something little for the family. They came promising us 1 million shillings ($382) but they didn’t do that.”

A man shows a tattoo of the elephant that killed his father
Peter Gilead shows a tattoo of the elephant he believes killed his father. A promised official compensation package has not been paid to Gilead’s family [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

TANAPA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on Glilead and Msemo’s cases.

Parliament Member Joseph Anania Tadayo, who represents the Kilimanjaro region and who Msemo said was present at her husband’s funeral, said there’s general dissatisfaction with the compensation process.

“I am making an attempt to deal with this matter at a high level,” he told Al Jazeera, without commenting on the specific families in Ngulu Kwakoa.

Mdee, the maize farmer, meanwhile, says the last time she received compensation from the authorities was in 2019, when authorities paid 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings ($38) per acre (0.4 hectare) of damage. Since then, elephants have raided yearly, but she has not received anything, she said.

In Msemo’s living room, loud cackling outside forced her to get up from her chair and shuffle outside to feed her chickens. Since her husband’s death, she has had to work twice as hard to take care of the now single-income household as her oldest children struggle to get jobs.

Still, she’s hopeful.

“Perhaps government has disbursed the compensation,” she said. “If it’s on the way, I’m waiting for it.”

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