It’s an expedition with a mission – and a very worthwhile mission at that. Following the migration routes of African elephants – the giants – it crosses southern Africa from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast on the west to Kwa Zulu, Natal in South Africa in the east. Set to last five months, the route also ventures into Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The Tracks of Giants expedition, supported by the Wilderness Foundation, started on 1st May. It has now traversed a third of the route and is in Botswana.
The expedition team is connecting with conservationists and meeting local people along the way. Walking these ancient trails, they aim:
- to promote a greater awareness of corridor and transfrontier park conservation
- to advocate a greater understanding of the human-animal interface
- to highlight sustainable human-animal relationships across Southern Africa
- to encourage a review of education and research perceptions concerning current environmental issues
- to provide an ongoing platform to feature southern African conservation challenges, potential long term solutions, and the ecological leadership required to address them.
As a key species, conserving the habitat for elephants also helps to conserve less well known flora and fauna…right down to the tiny dung beetle. Elephants do cause damage, knocking down trees and destroying vegetation. However, this results in areas having more ‘open‘ woodland. Put simply, if the elephants were not there, the habitat would be different and consequently different species would be supported. Elephants need space, so it is vital that migration corridors link wildlife areas.
Human Wildlife Conflict – is that an elephant in my garden?
Although the expedition traverses southern Africa, conflict between people and wildlife is a huge problem across the continent. People have settled in areas where they were previously nomadic. At the same time, the human population in Africa has grown exponentially. Inevitably, conflict with wildlife has arisen.
One of my first experiences of this was on a commercial maize farm in the lea of Mount Kenya in the late 1970s. A herd of some 300 elephants was milling around on farmland, and not able to progress further as their migration route had been cut off to the mountain. They were causing terrible crop damage. In desperation some people were putting down broken glass, mixed with salt to try and get rid of them. On that occasion, Kenya Wildlife Service were eventually called in and a cow elephant shot. Her frightened calf, penned up in a stockade while people poked it with sticks, died soon afterwards.
Thankfully, due to the research work of Save the Elephants and other similar organisations, much more is understood about elephant behaviour and ecology today. And, in Kenya, when a baby elephant is orphaned it is often rescued by Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage.
But more often, conflict with elephants has been with local people, whose very livelihoods have been destroyed overnight by a rogue elephant. And people have been killed in the process. To them, the elephant is a pest, and often they get little or no compensation for their losses. I have seen Maasai in the land adjacent to Amboseli National Park shouting and brandishing their spears at elephants getting too near to their onion plots.
Three solutions to keep elephants at bay
Over the years, different methods have been tried – among these are:
- electric fences with deep ditches on either side – a costly exercise and often prone to going wrong
- planting chillies around compounds, or roping off area with ropes soaked in chilli oil – elephants don’t like chilli
- bees are a natural deterrent with the added bonus that local communities can develop a cottage industry from collecting the honey – this is proving particularly successful; elephants will change direction when they hear the hum of bees.
The role of responsible tourism
With tourism being a vital foreign exchange earner for African countries, there have been incidents of local people complaining that wildlife is given preference to their welfare. Again, times are changing. Responsible tourism plays an important role in securing a viable income from wildlife for local people through employment, education bursaries, conservation fees and the like. Today much work is being done with local communities to ensure that they do not pay the price of living with wildlife. Being on the frontline, in many cases the future of wildlife is in their hands.
The Tracks of Giants expedition will certainly highlight different ways for wildlife conservationists to work with local communities. Not only will it give a greater understanding about the needs of elephants and people, but also all other species of wildlife. Gathering information at grass roots’ level, their research will be invaluable to all those involved in wildlife conservation throughout Africa.