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Notes from the Field: Abbi Pstrzoch - Elephants for Africa

Elephants near Khumaga, Botswana

Time and time again (and I myself am guilty of this) people fall victim to tunnel vision, succumbing to the perception that most problems have one cause. It’s easy to brainstorm possible solutions when you ignore vital aspects of the conflict, but these solutions do not address the entirety of the problem, and as a result, they often fail to solve the issue at hand. People get frustrated from a lack of results, efforts are abandoned, complacency sets in, and the problem remains. This is a cycle that happens all too often with human-wildlife conflicts. To avoid getting stuck, creative, multifaceted solutions must be considered and implemented, which is exactly what Elephants for Africa is doing.

Solar electric elephant fence

Farmer showing us the solar panel he uses to power his electric elephant fence

Elephants for Africa is a Botswana-based NGO that works alongside farmers to protect their crops and livelihoods from the raiding tendencies of elephants. They work in solidarity with local farmers because they understand that when it comes to protecting elephant populations, it’s not enough to place a ban upon hunting; poaching still exists, and, in some places, is running rampant despite protective laws. In addition, despite the hunting ban in Botswana, killing elephants is completely legal if they are on your land and threatening your safety or livelihood. As long as you call the Department of Wildlife, report the situation, and have them collect the tusks, you will not be prosecuted. By helping locals implement anti-crop raiding systems, EFA protects elephant populations from the violent retaliation and general hatred exuded by affected farmers.

One method that farmers are employing is the burning of “chili bricks,” which is a compacted mixture of elephant dung and red chiles. When the peppers are burned, capsican (the chemical in chilis that give them their spicy flavor) is released in the smoke, and this in turn irritates the elephants and wards them away from fields. The second method that farmers are employing is solar-powered electric fences. By using a cell to harness the sun’s energy, farmers are able to power a series of wires around their fields. Small electrical shocks scare the elephants and keep them out of fields.

Chili pepper plot

While these methods have been very effective in warding off elephants, they are not the most sustainable or readily available solutions for farmers in Botswana. For instance, while chili bricks are relatively cheap, the chili availability and growing potential in Botswana is extremely limiting. When grown locally, the chilis require substantial amounts of water and typically produce meager yields despite high labor input. For solar-powered electric fences, the main drawback stems from their high initial costs and maintenance. Knowing that solutions are not universally successful, EFA is continuously working to find even better anti-crop raiding systems for Botswana farmers.

Throughout my time in Botswana, I’ve learned a ton about the human-wildlife conflict from people who have been in the middle of it; people who have had their entire harvests destroyed in one night, people who have had their livelihoods obliterated in hours. But despite their negative past experiences with elephants, farmers are willing to put aside their anger and take steps to live in harmony with the giants. They are the leaders of conservation. They are the ones with the most to teach, and we must listen.

Lead photo:  Elephants coming to water at the Boteti River, in the no-mans-land between the national park and the Khumaga agricultural area

Abbi PstrzochAbbi Pstrzoch is a University of Illinois undergraduate