I went to South Africa hungry to learn about the conflicts between humans and wildlife on a continent with shrinking resources. Africa is a place of vast struggles, but it is also our most magnificent and diverse continent - with more cultures, more languages, more human history, and more varied and extreme habitats and wild animal creatures than any other continent on Earth.
It is "the luminous continent," says Bob Geldof. And I might add, "the magical continent." It feels that way. It feels like an altogether different planet; a place that casts spells on people like me. If I drive 50 miles from my home here in NC, I will see squirrels and robins, I might see a chipmunk or an Eastern Cottontail. If I drove 50 miles from any point where I was in South Africa, I might see a giraffe, or a zebra. Or an elephant. I would hear more than one language I didn't understand, see clothing or everyday human inventions or customs that were completely new to me. Bedsprings used as a garden gate; a vendor selling air for tires or calls from a cell phone; marula nuts on my plate, which I had never heard of before. I marveled every time I saw a woman walking along the road with a parcel of fuel wood balanced on her head; when I saw a young child with a baby tied to her back. I was astounded at every single new thing; sometimes I was troubled as well, sometimes thrilled, but always astounded.
But in addition to that, I was also on a mission. One of my self-imposed assignments was to talk to everyone I could find about the challenges to wildlife survival in Africa, and about the challenges that rural villagers face in a world of dwindling natural resources.
On the subject of wildlife, I heard ten times more comments about elephants than about any other animal. We had the good fortune to talk to a number of rural villagers, particularly villagers in the area of Kruger National Park.
"Elephants eat and trample our crops. They can tear up a whole field of corn in a few hours" said one of the villagers we talked to, a comment that was echoed by many other farming communities. Rural villagers in South Africa rely heavily on their corn crops for survival.
Almost every lunch and dinner for rural indigenous people in northeastern South Africa consists primarily of "pap," a corn-meal dish that looks and tastes like thick corn grits. The pap might be eaten with a garnish of vitamin-rich herbs, or a bit of pumpkin, but pap from corn is the essential staple. It's good! We enjoyed pap on a couple of occasions, with a few mopani worms on the side for protein. The mopani worms we ate were boiled caterpillars, which were surprisingly tasty.
These villagers work hard 24/7, raising all of their food and grinding their own corn into mealie-meal for the pap. Every family has chickens; some have a few goats and a couple of pigs as well. They build their own houses out of wood from the village commons, or increasingly, from bricks made of sand from the nearby river. They waste nothing. In the villages and all over South Africa we saw everyday items fashioned from things that could have been trash. Newspaper becomes wallpaper. A 2-liter pop bottle is the body of a toy truck; its wheels made of pop cans. Cast-off plastic bottles now tote water from the river, or hold liquid fuels for sale.
In this world of resources stretched thin, an elephant foraging in village crop fields is bad, bad news. A ruined corn field is devastating to a village living on the edge of subsistence.
But what is an elephant to do? All over sub-Saharan Africa, more and more land is converted to agriculture or other human endeavors. In South Africa, this may mean fields of staple crops, or it may mean huge tracks of sugar-cane owned by international corporations. Or tree farms of non-native tree species for the timber industry. We saw sugar cane and tree farms everywhere. A "tree farm" may sound "green" but it isn't. These huge chemically managed monocultures are useless to wildlife; they are deserts in terms of biodiversity. In Kenya, increasing amounts of land are converted to quarries, to produce stone for housing the increasing human population. Or farms that grow flowers to be sold in the U.S. and Europe. Farmers in both South Africa and Kenya increasingly fence their property to keep animals out, but the fences keep the animals confined to smaller and smaller pockets of land, unable to travel from one pocket to another as they forage or search for mates.
How will the human-elephant conflict be resolved? I don't know. I do know that conservation efforts must include local people; everyone knows that now. Villagers must have some real incentive to protect wildlife, some incentive that improves their income or their livelihoods.
The ecotourism industry is employing more and more rural people who actually live next to the parks and preserves - that is a strong and positive step forward. When elephants from preserves and national parks destroy crops, villagers must be compensated for their losses immediately. We heard villagers' complaints that they are not compensated, although they have been told that they will be.
People living in villages next to national parks must also be included in government meetings that formulate wildlife policies; their opinions must be listened to. We were told by villagers that they do attend meetings, but their input is ignored.
Elephants are not the only animals that have conflicts with human settlements. After elephants, lions drew more comments and complaints than any other we heard about on our trip. Lions sometimes kill livestock, just as wolves in parts of the western United States do. But more lions in a later post.
Keywords:: South Africa elephants human elephant conflict conservation ecotourism compensation