By Olga Kutchment
In April, a helicopter carrying a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researcher and her collaborators hovered over an elephant herd in northern Botswana. A veterinarian tranquilized an elephant from the air. The team descended, checked that the animal was sleeping comfortably, and placed a collar the size of a hula-hoop around its neck. The collar will transmit the elephant’s GPS coordinates every hour for the next four years.
The team found this particular elephant near an agricultural region between the Okavango River Delta and the Kalahari Desert. Roughly 15,000 elephants walk through the area regularly: Botswana has the largest population of wild elephants in the world. While outsiders marvel at the elephants, locals can face enormous problems when the animals trample and raid crops. Clashes between elephants and farmers have ended in bloodshed on both sides.
The researchers want to help diffuse the conflict in this region.
“What makes our five-year program unique is the holistic approach that we are taking,” said Dr. Amanda Stronza, associate professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences. Stronza, an anthropologist, is one of three co-directors of the program Ecoexist.
Ecoexist involves farmers, researchers, doctoral students, government agencies, private businesses, and others. Stronza co-directs the project with Drs. Anna Songhurst and Graham McCulloch; it is affiliated with Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University. Funding is provided by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Among the program’s aims are to bolster local economies, strengthen the resilience of farmers by improving agricultural techniques, and guide land use through the precise mapping of elephant pathways using information from the GPS collars.
Other projects also address human-elephant conflict, but Ecoexist is unique in employing both short-term strategies to meet farmers’ immediate needs and seeking long-term solutions to underlying causes of the conflict.
“We believe there are achievable solutions to the underlying causes and that addressing them concurrently will make significant impact,” writes McCulloch. “This approach has, until now, never been attempted in Botswana or the region.”
Water for elephants
For most of the year elephants spend time at pools of rainwater that collect in the Kalahari Desert. When that water dries up during the dry season, the animals predictably trek to the Okavango River Delta. Finding patterns in the elephants’ migrations was a part of Songhurst’s doctoral work.
Near the delta, the dusty landscape of the Kalahari fills in with tree groves, marshes, and farmers’ fields. The animals don’t go out of their way to find the fields, but when they see delicious millet, pumpkins, or corn, they snack on the crops and trample them in the process.
“Farmers resent and fear the elephants and are incredibly frustrated,” Stronza says. “A visit from an elephant one night can destroy the source of subsistence for an entire year.”
Information from the GPS collars will shed light on both the routes and the schedules of elephants. Knowing where elephants will go and when they will arrive would help farmers plant crops farther from the routes, plant crops that elephants dislike, or plant crops that can be harvested before the elephants get there.
The researchers spent three days collaring 20 wild elephants in different herds.
Stronza had worried whether the other elephants in the herd would threaten the team, but the noise of the helicopter largely kept the animals away. On a few occasions a landing spot could not be found near the groggy elephant. Then the team had to walk up to a third of a mile to find the animal, “which was a little bit nerve-wracking when there were lots of elephants around,” says Songhurst.
But the collaring was completed with no incidents.
Seven doctoral students will join the project in August and will help analyze the GPS data as it streams in. They will also help study resource use by local people through surveys, focus groups and ethnography. The team will collate the data to predict potential flash points for conflict and to guide land zoning over time.
“This is really a social-ecological system that elephants and people share,” Stronza says. “Can we more carefully plan land use so there’s space for the farmers and there’s space for the elephants?”
The data may also point toward untapped opportunities for locals to benefit from the presence of elephants, Stronza says. The team is collaborating with locals to bring ecotourism to the region and to promote goods grown in elephant-friendly ways.
“So often, conservation is about setting aside parks and reserves for the wildlife and then the people are meant to live everywhere else,” Stronza says. “There is a history in protected areas all over the world of displacing local people. This is a really different approach.”