Words and photographs by Susanne Vogel.

Read the whole paper, by Susanne Vogel, Anna Songhurst, Graham McCulloch, and Amanda Stronza, here.

When people hear my work revolves around elephants, it seems they immediately envision me as a romantic-comedy character living in harmony with elephants. Responses vary from “so cute!” to “I have heard elephants are really smart”, unfortunately sometimes followed by a “I saw a YouTube video where they taught an elephant how to play football!”. Yes, elephants are extremely smart, and not just because we can pressure them into playing football, and yes, a little elephant calf can look adorable, but elephants are anything but cute. Intelligent, sentient, majestic: yes. But cute implies a level of endearing and sweetness not easily ascribed to impressive, large, wild animals – or even to the largest on land! – especially by the people that are trying to live with them. Elephants are not the Big Friendly Giants we sometimes imagine, which means that living with them requires finding creative ways to keep them at bay. This becomes problematic exactly because of those beautiful characteristics of elephants, as their impressive intelligence makes it extremely hard to scare or trick them away from people.

Now, you may wonder, why do people need to try and find ways to live with them in the first place? If it is so complicated, why not set aside some land for people, and some land for elephants, and everyone lives happily ever after? This is exactly what people – often colonialists – thought when they set up Nature Reserves, for example in Botswana. They selected an area, removed people from it, and declared it a protected area for wildlife, restricting people’s use of nature. Finally, a place where wildlife was safe from hunting. Ironic, as it was mainly those colonialists who started the drastic declines of African elephants, with their hunting and logging reducing elephant numbers from an estimated 26 million before colonialists arrived to around only 1.2  million in 1979. Currently, African elephants are considered endangered according to the IUCN red list, with only around 400,000 left in the wild. In Botswana, over 80% of these elephants live outside of protected areas and share the landscape with people. So, if we want to ensure a future for them, it is crucial we can find ways they can coexist with people.

After the creation of the nature reserves in Botswana, wildlife-based tourism and diamond mining became important national economic interests. This conflicted with the livelihood strategies of many communities, such as agriculture and cattle herding. Since Botswana gained independence from colonial powers in 1965, conflicts around land and resource use still exist, but the Botswana government tries to actively support people in planting crops, and protecting them from elephants. Now the question is how can they best do so?

All over the world, people are trying to protect their crops, livestock, and families from wildlife. Some of the methods to keep wildlife away are developed by farmers, but there are also many research projects that try to develop and test methods. There are many different methods available, and for elephants we could group them four ways:

1. Passive mitigation, like fences.
2. Actively scaring elephants away, for example by clapping of hands.
3. Using innovative methods, usually from research on for example bees and chilli.
4. Wildlife conscious farming by changing what, where and when farmers plant.

When researchers test methods, they usually give materials freely to farmers. When it comes to elephants, there are many methods that seem promising in keeping them out of people’s fields. So why are not all farmers using these effective methods, and why are we still worried about elephants entering fields and destroying crops? It turns out that just because farmers have been given materials for mitigation, and have seen that the methods can work, this does not mean they will actually use them. Even if people say they are willing to use a method, this does not mean they will actually use it. Therefore, we need to look for alternative ways of finding out how we can best support farmers to coexist with elephants.

Earlier I mentioned people often romanticise my job. To break people’s fantasy, I often quickly mention that I have spent more time with elephant poop and staring at them walking on my computer screen than living in harmony with elephants. Even people like me, who spend years learning about elephant behaviour and mitigation methods from both books and research, will never know what it is like to be the farmer who, after ploughing away for months, risking life and sanity defending the fields each night, stands amongst the destroyed efforts of what used to be months of food for you and your family. Forget about insurances or compensation, (there is currently no well-working system), second tries (not enough rain on the forecast), or alternative income options – There are none. And this is just my imagination based on what I have seen or heard. In reality, I have no idea even how to describe what it feels like, and if you also have not experienced living powerless to elephants, neither do you. Then, why is it widely accepted for someone who does not need to live with elephants to advise people on how to live with elephants and consider this ‘support’?

Therefore, in our recent study, we ask farmers to identify the reasons they use – or do not use! – mitigation methods. In this way, we tried to learn from them how they can be empowered to protect themselves and their fields from elephants with external support. Working together with a team of Botswana community officers, we used an ethnographic method that minimised us directing the results of the study, and allowed for farmers to identify their reasons in their own words. We first asked farmers across four villages in the eastern panhandle of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana what methods they use and why. This is an area of just over 8,000 km2 where around 18,000 elephants and 18,000 people share space and resources. Afterwards, we used the farmers’ answers to test if we could predict, based on their characteristics and experiences, what methods they used and what methods they did not use. We managed to do this for 14 of the 16 methods mentioned, and grouped the different reasons farmers were motivated to use the methods, eliminated using the methods, or were constraint in using the methods.

From this research project we learned the following five lessons:

  1. Co-design mitigation methods and only if collaborations are sustainable. One-off inputs of materials do not result in a sustainable use of mitigation methods and farmers need to be involved from the start when testing mitigation methods or distributing materials.
  2. Logistical support is necessary to increase farmers’ autonomy. Farmers were constrained by not being able to buy the methods they wanted, either due to no opportunities to earn money, or no access to places to buy from. External bodies, such as government or NGOs, could invest in logistical opportunities, like transport abilities, and by encouraging small business enterprises in the sale or construction of the mitigation materials that farmers want.
  3. Increase sharing of knowledge within farmers and between farmers and external bodies. The distribution of knowledge and access to mitigation methods was not equally distributed. External bodies, such as government or NGOs, could facilitate community sharing of mitigation method ideas, especially regarding wildlife conscious farming, as only a few farmers used these techniques yet money plays no role in eliminating or constraining these methods.
  4. Make sure approaches are diverse and locally adapted. Individual farmers and individual elephants differ, so it is important that this is also reflected in the mitigation methods: what is preferred or what works differs per situation.
  5. Further exploration of potential of sustainable approaches like wildlife conscious farming. Not many farmers used wildlife-conscious or elephant-aware farming, but those that did were positive. There is promising potential for these more sustainable techniques, and external bodies could support farmers by encouraging and educating them on exploring this potential.

This research project is only part of the story. Besides a diversity of people involved in the project, our research paper is written by non-Botswana researchers. This means we have at best missed the full potential of our study, or at worse we continued disempowering processes. Research lead by those from studies’ countries, regions and cultures themselves should therefore be considered on the forefront of supporting people to coexist with wildlife. This also means we –and I am very much part of this we- need to commit to inclusive science practices and stimulate diverse collaborations. Also, people do not only need access to materials and knowledge to start using a method; maintenance and upkeep of, for example, electric fences has proved to be just as difficult and complicated. Understanding how to keep these fences going is necessary to find ways to increase the sustainable use of them.

If we try to incorporate these lessons we learned from farmers across the world, maybe we can empower more people in mitigating their coexistence issues with wildlife.