Hwange, Zimbabwe – For months, Flora Mangwana has been unnerved by the notion that her crops won’t be able to spend another night undisturbed in the field while dozing indoors. Today, the 40-year-old farmer sleeps in a makeshift hut outside her home in Siyalwindi, north-west Zimbabwe.
For more than a dozen years, herds of elephants from nearby Hwange National Park have invaded their family property every other night and devour the planted corn before it is ripe.
This has often prompted Mwangana, her family’s breadwinner, to find other sources of food to support her family of six. Before harvesting in April, she worries about a repeat scenario.
“The elephants come to our fields in large numbers and we will not harvest much this season,” she said. “Because of the elephants, we don’t harvest much every year. There was little rain this year and elephants are still becoming a big problem and destroying our fields.”
Hwange National Park is the South African country’s largest wildlife sanctuary. In 1928 it was declared a game reserve. It covers 14,600 square kilometers and is located in the eastern part of the Kalahari Desert, an area with low rainfall, and is home to more than 100 species of mammals and 400 species of birds.
During the dry season, competition for food and water intensifies, leading to conflicts among the animals. Some of these animals, the elephants, have also been wandering into residential areas around the park for years. The invasion has resulted in loss of crops on farmland and loss of life across the country.
The situation has worsened as the elephant population in the wildlife park has risen to more than 50,000 over the years, well in excess of the 10,000 holding capacity, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management (ZimParks) told the BBC.
In 2020, according to the ZimParks website, there were more than 50 injuries and 60 deaths due to growing conflict between wildlife and humans. That was an increase of more than fifty percent over the previous year.
The villagers drive their cattle into the wildlife park in search of good pastures and water sources. Thomas Tshuma, 47, a rancher, has encountered elephants while tending his livestock at the wildlife park.
“Every time we go into the game to herd our livestock, the elephants will harass us, attack our livestock and chase them away from waterholes and pastures,” Tshuma told Al Jazeera. “Pasture land is now scarce and we need to find better pastures to feed our animals.”
To protect their crops, the villagers have formed sentinels to scare off the elephants with primitive weapons and bonfires. As the animals come out of the park, the guards bang metal cans loudly to scare them.
But experts also say this human activity is part of the problem.
“Land use change and ongoing human encroachment near and sometimes within protected areas are the driving factors behind the increase in human-wildlife conflict,” said Shamiso Mupara, executive director of the Mutare-based non-profit organization Environmental Buddies Zimbabwe. “And it probably causes both parties to suffer.”
Increasing demand for land use around Hwange has resulted in communities encroaching on the wildlife park.
“Before the conflicts started, there was a fence separating the community and the park. However, it has been removed and the elephants have access to the community’s farmland,” said Ndlelende Ncube, founder of the Tikobane Trust, a Hwange-based conservation volunteer group. “Moreover, population growth has led to the occupation of buffer zones, sometimes a kilometer wide, which has sparked conflict in 27 villages.”
survival of the fittest
Due to the low rainfall, the current farming season is likely to bring a poor harvest, even if the elephants continue to launch regular raids. So the villagers are turning to crop protection and saying that agriculture, as the main source of income in Siyalwindi, is under threat.
“We don’t sleep in our houses at night, we stay awake trying to keep away the elephants that come because of the few crops we have,” Mangwana added.
Others capture wild animals for meat or to sell their body parts to poachers.
ZimParks, which manages the country’s national parks, said it’s trying to “strike a balance between people and wildlife,” according to Tinashe Farawo, a spokeswoman for ZimParks. “Both animal and human populations are increasing.”
“Communities that border parks must refrain from herding livestock in the parks because their livestock are at risk of contracting diseases and being attacked,” Farawo added.
Previous studies conducted in Kruger National Park in neighboring South Africa to test the repellents have proven that “elephant repellents, chili bombs and beehive fences are effective in deterring elephants,” Mupara said.
Last year, Tikobane Trust tested an elephant repellent in a village that it produced with the help of local stakeholders. The main ingredients were cow dung, water and garlic. It proved “successful in repelling elephants from 200 meters away,” Ndlelende said.
There also appears to be a concerted effort to reduce poaching through skills training and entrepreneurship for communities near the parks to help them participate in the tourism value chain.
Farawo said villagers benefit from Communal Area Management for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), a government program to support community-led development. Government officials said the money from the program will be used for development purposes such as building schools, clinics and roads.
However, some farmers say the ongoing losses caused by animals trampling on their crops are taking a toll on them, and they see little direct benefit from CAMPFIRE funds. Community members, including Mangawana and Ncube, said their neighbors appointed to the committees don’t know how it works because they don’t lead the project.
For example, if a rowdy elephant is shot by ZimParks, communities reportedly get only a small cut, Ncube said. Last year, Dete, another affected area, reportedly received a payout of less than $100, he said.
After years of confronting the elephants, Mangwana is running out of patience and wants quick fixes rather than new policies and programs.
“The elephants had better be removed from the area,” she said. “We’re losing and we’re under a lot of stress because we don’t sleep at night. The CAMPFIRE funds benefit only a few people who administer the program.”