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How engaging local communities helps a wildlife veterinarian save elephants

As amazing as it would be if they did, animals don’t help save animals. People do...or don't. In Africa I have learned that working with communities alongside Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park has led to some interesting experiments involving "spicy beehive fences" -- and perhaps more importantly, a changing perception that there are ways for local people to help resolve their conflict with wildlife....

As amazing as it would be if they did, animals don’t help save animals. People do…or don’t.

When I started working on my elephant project in Mozambique, Africa, with the aim of understanding and finding ways to resolve human-elephant conflict, I did it because of my passion for animals. I have always worked with them, firstly using my heart and what my family taught me, later supported by technical and scientific knowledge acquired in veterinary school.

In 2015, I left Brazil to pursue my dream: I wanted to help save Africa’s wildlife, especially elephants. My project started with a lot of hands-on activities: flying on helicopters and darting elephants to fit them with satellite collars to track their movements. I felt all the satisfaction that any veterinarian passionate about wildlife could hope for.

Elephant under chemical immobilization receiving a satellite collar that will allow me to study its
movements for 2 years. During the procedure, I monitor his vital signs to make sure he is safe.

By tracking the collared elephant’s movements, I noticed how much time they spend in the communities surrounding the Park’s boundaries. Since that beginning, the focus of the project became the study of elephant crop-raiding behavior, one of the main reasons for conflicts with local people.

My visits to the communities allowed me to interact with many local members (thanks to my Brazilian nationality, I speak the same language, Portuguese, which is widely spoken in Mozambique). Not surprisingly, their point of view is very different to mine. For them, elephants mean two things: they are a pest eating all their food, and they have Ivory that is worth a lot of money. Anyone can figure out that the combination of these two things don’t have happy consequences for the elephants.

Community member showing his crop damaged by elephants.

It is concerning to think that local communities are growing so fast, and more and more people are being raised with this same mentality. That made me think a lot, and my conclusion is that if we really want to make an impact to save the elephants, we must focus our efforts on what is killing them. For that, I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my career: I took my eyes away from the animals, and started working with the communities.

Nowadays, I spend probably 95 percent of my time with communities, and 5 percent studying elephants. There is no other way. If we want to help wildlife, we need to understand and engage local people. They are the ones who will choose conflict or coexistence, and we–scientists, animal-lovers, conservationists, educators–are the ones responsible for this kind of reconciliation between wildlife and people.

Obviously, it is not only about teaching people how important elephants and other animals are for the environment. It involves a broader combination of efforts, such as agricultural and health support. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, until the basic human needs are met, no one cares about conservation or anything else. But even by engaging communities in our projects, we can slowly make them understand and support our perspective..

Meeting with one of the communities situated in the buffer zone of Gorongosa National Park. In this meeting, I explained the goal of my project, and asked for their opinion and ideas. They have a lot to say, and it is very important to listen.

Human-elephant conflicts are known to have occurred for many, many years, all over the African elephant’s continent-wide territory. Elephants readily leave protected areas on an expedition through people’s crops. They eat maize, pumpkin, beans, watermelon… There is very little that doesn’t get taken. In the process, entire fields are destroyed, and months of hard work to plant and nurture important food supplies are wasted. It is, undeniably, a big problem.

Obviously, the perspective of this situation depends from which side you are on. Some blame elephants, some blame people, some blame the government. For me, the only ones that can be removed from this list are the elephants. They are the ones losing their territory and their population.

So then, what to do?

With the goal of finding ways to mitigate such conflicts, I spent time with Dr. Lucy King from Save the Elephants in Kenya, learning about the use of beehive fences, and the PAMS Foundation team in Tanzania, learning about the use of chili fences to keep elephants away from crops. With them, I also learned how important it is to choose strategies that engage communities.

Currently, I am testing and comparing three different strategies to decrease crop-raiding events in the buffer zone of Gorongosa National Park: beehive fencing, chili fencing, and a combination of both that I like to call a “spicy beehive fence”.

Spicy beehive fences built in the buffer zone of Gorongosa National Park. In between each hive there is a
rope dipped in chili oil. The idea is that the elephants trying to reach the crops will smell the chili and
leave. Those that are tolerant to chili and push the rope, will end up shaking the hives, and making the bees very upset. Like humans, elephants are known to be scared of bees.
Chili, called piri-piri in Mozambique, being dried in the sun to later be grinded and used to as elephant
The chili fence consists of ground chili mix with vegetable oil. Pieces of cloth and sisal rope are then dipped in this mix and hang in bamboo poles.

To monitor the efficiency of these strategies, community members are trained to fill daily sheets with information about the elephant’s behavior when they approach the fences. Also, trail cameras were installed to monitor elephant’s behavior at night.

Photo from one of the trail cameras showing elephants walking by the chili fence, trying to find
a way to reach the fields.

I am still gathering data for a  statistical analysis to determine if the strategies are having a significant impact,, but the perception of the community is that the fences are working well and are helping to keep the elephants away. Elephants still go in and raid crops if they eventually break the fences, but my perception is that just by bringing ideas, engaging people, and working with the communities as a team, makes those communities at least more tolerant to wildlife encounters.

Team of local members trained to be part of project.

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Meet the Author

Paola Branco
Paola Branco is an animal lover above all things. She has always focused her efforts on better understanding the animal world, with a special interest in African wildlife. She graduated in veterinary medicine and specialized in animal anesthesia in Brazil, her home country, and since then she has worked in many animal hospitals and in different field projects. Paola is currently working on her Master’s degree at the University of Idaho, where she is researching human-elephant conflicts in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Her research has taken her to the US, Kenya and Tanzania to gather experience with other scientists, and many months of work in her study sites. Besides understanding the relationship between elephants and local people, she is trying to use strategies to promote the coexistence between the two species, with the goal of providing a safer environment for the remaining elephant population.