2. Elephants

Posted: 5 March 2001

Author: Charlie Pye-Smith

Author Info: Charlie Pye-Smith is a freelance journalist specialising in environment and development issues.

Elephants are thriving in parts of southern Africa. Charlie Pye-Smith travelled to Botswana and Zimbabwe to find out why.

"Every year between 1992 and 1997," says Chief Lux Masule, one eye warily tracking three elephants which amble past us, "someone was killed by an elephant in the Chobe Enclave." One year it was a vet; another it was a policeman. Frequently it has been peasant farmers working their fields. Such deaths are to be expected as the Enclave's 7,000 inhabitants live on a strip of land which lies between the Chobe River - a magnet for game - and forest which supports a huge concentration of elephants.

For centuries, the villagers harvested wild animals for meat and hide, but during colonial times the relationship changed, with the British government effectively assuming ownership of game. After independence, the Botswanan government stuck to the policies established by its predecessors: the state, not the people, determined the fate of wildlife.

A village in the Nyaminyami District, Zimbabwe© Charlie Pye-Smith"In 1989," explains the chief, "we asked the government to give us back the right to manage the wildlife ourselves." Four years later the Chobe Enclave Conservation Trust (CETC) was established. Its principal aim is to generate profits for the community through the sale of a hunting quota.

This year 12 bull elephants will fetch around £4,000 each. Of this income, 15 per cent will be retained by the trust; the rest will be divided equally between the five villages in the Enclave. Over the past few years they have built grinding mills, classrooms, a campsite, a petrol station and a range of other facilities.

Across the border in Zimbabwe, the idea that wildlife must pay its way if it is to survive outside protected areas has been influencing life in the communal areas - where 70 per cent of Zimbabweans live - for almost a decade.

Managing wildlife

Under the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources - Campfire, for short - district councils can apply for the authority to manage wildlife outside national parks. Today, 36 out of 57 rural councils which have joined the programme sell a hunting quota to a safari operator who in turn arranges for wealthy hunters, mostly from the United States and Europe, to shoot big game. The hunting quota is set annually and must be agreed upon by the Department of National Parks to ensure that the harvest is sustainable. So far, over 90 per cent of Campfire profits ($1.6 million in 1995) come from sport hunting, and two-thirds of this from hunting elephant.

Campfire was the brainchild of conservationists who believed that wildlife was unlikely to survive outside protected areas unless there was an incentive to tolerate and protect it. "In the old days," explains Champion Chinoyi of the Zimbabwe Trust, "poachers were considered as heroes, and the villagers would give them shelter from the authorities." Why? Because wild animals raided crops, occasionally killed people and brought no benefits to the impoverished farming communities.

To see Campfire in action I travelled to Nyaminyami district, one of the first to adopt the programme back in 1989. Councillor Mercyman Sianembwa, who showed me round his ward, had lost most of his crops to elephants this year and the day I arrived a farmer is killed by a buffalo, but the villagers of Mola Ward 3 are philosophical. Yes, they say, wildlife does cause problems, but the benefits from wildlife far outweigh the problems for most people.

Ten years ago few children got a decent education; now Mola has a primary school serving 700 children, as well as a grinding mill, a workshop making paper out of elephant dung and a range of other projects. "Everything you see has been built from the profits of Campfire," explains the Councillor proudly. This year Campfire revenue is paying the wages of 27 infant teachers and half a dozen game scouts.

So the people are conspicuously better off in Mola, but what about the animals? Poaching has been much reduced, partly as a result of the vigilance of the game scouts, but also because the council culls 150-odd impala a year and sells the meat at cost price to the villagers.

In other parts of Zimbabwe I talked to villagers who were digging huge holes in dried-up river beds so that elephants could get water and survive the drought: before Campfire, they would have been all too happy for the elephants to die. Of course, poaching continues, especially for the pot, but it is much reduced now that the people in communal areas have a vested interest in looking after wildlife. As far as the elephant is concerned, its numbers rose from 46,000 in 1980 to 64,000 in 1995. The annual hunting quota of around 150 elephants for the communal areas works out at about a sixth of the annual increase.

Stampeding elephants

Campfire is far from perfect. In one area I visited, the villagers were bitterly angry as the council and the safari operator had failed to deal with the elephants which regularly raided their fields, and most had lost all their maize and much of their cotton. The benefits from Campfire are also patchy, with a small number of wards receiving very large dividends, and many gaining relatively little. These are faults which are readily admitted by everyone involved with Campfire: indeed it would be astonishing if such an innovative programme covering such a vast area was consistently successful.

However, potentially the most damaging criticism is coming from animals rights groups in the United States, led by the Humane Society of the United States. They claim that the programme is "biologically unsustainable" and that the communities are neither managing nor benefiting from the programme. This is clearly untrue, as elephant numbers continue to rise and a third of the country is now devoted to wildlife management. Though the latter criticism is true for some areas, it is nonsense for others.

Bull elephants and impalas at a watering hole© Martin Harvey/WWFIt is hard to find an impartial voice in this increasingly fractious debate, but one independent organisation which is monitoring the progress of sustainable use programmes is the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). "What worries us," says Christo Fabricius of IIED, "is not just the misinformation put out by the animal rights lobby. A vast number of projects like Campfire initially depend on outside help to get them started. The critics might succeed in stopping some of this seed-funding." Indeed, the animal rights lobby is putting considerable pressure on the United States Agency for International Development, which has helped to fund Campfire.

A month after I saw Chief Masule he wrote to remind me of the annual elephant kills in Chobe between 1992 to 1997. His letter read: "The record for 1998 has been completed. On Monday 15 June, my own uncle of my age was killed by elephants while looking for his stray cattle about 1.5 km from home. The deceased was severely mutilated, leaving him partially identifiable."

News that outsiders are against Campfire is reaching the villagers. Many are indignant: these are our elephants, they say. For them this is a very practical matter. They must make a living beside the elephant, and if the culling of a few helps to bring greater prosperity to rural areas, and at the same time ensure the survival of the species, then programmes like Campfire and CECT must be the best way forward.