The picture above was taken last month, February 2022, during a manifestation in a village called Katala, located between the reserve and conservation area of Upemba National Park.
We have all heard or been part of conflicts between neighbors, tribes, countries and more, but have you ever heard about Human- Elephant conflict (HEC)?
In conservation, HEC is one of the most common conflicts; so, whether you have heard about this conflict before or not, please keep reading because we have an interesting story for you!
In lands where humans cohabitate with wildlife, there are different types of conflicts that can arise. Human-wildlife conflict (HWC), being one of them is an ongoing conservation issue that appears to be increasing wherever wildlife ranges overlap with human habitation, and in this case, the cohabitation of elephants and humans creating the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC).
The most common result in such situation is a battle for space, food, water and more, creating a fight between the two parties. Elephants are known to have great memories and when one sees their own being threatened or killed by humans, we automatically become their enemies, and a never-ending war is waged, making life very difficult.
As much as the causes of HEC are vast and are affected by different factors, at Upemba National Park, our biomonitoring team, after some studies and observation of the situation, have identified that the first cause of the conflict is the presence of Cassava and rice crops, which are elephants’ favourite food and unfortunately, the most cultivated in the areas (the localities along the shores of Upemba lake)
African bush Elephants, also called Loxodonta Africana, the largest living land animal, can destroy a whole year of hard work in a single visit. They can eat up to 450 kgs of food, and when elephants feed, they are very wasteful and can easily destroy about a hectare of crop in a few attacks. It is therefore not surprising that elephants are considered one of the most dangerous species for food crops, which probably leads to a decrease in tolerance of them in rural communities.
This conflict is one of the major obstacles to the sustainable conservation of elephants in Upemba National Park. It also affects the conservation efforts already undertaken in favor of these mammals, whose frequency and density are constantly increasing and could attract tourists.
We need to remember that Upemba National Park, one the oldest National parks of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Africa, once counted thousands of elephants. Regrettably the wildlife has been significantly reduced due to heavy poaching for ivory and bushmeat that has gone unchecked in an environment of instability, with limited and inconsistent conservation protection, and the growth of humans in villages surrounding the protected area also increased the need for exploitation, poaching, reducing the population of elephants to just above 100 in 2017, spread across different sites of Upemba National Park.
Since working with ICCN (the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) from 2017 for Upemba’s management, rehabilitation and development, Forgotten Parks Foundation have been able to push for growth of those mammals which has been very positive cause we can count about 200 or more elephants at the moment, and our rangers have also been working hard to regroup them into bigger herds for better monitoring and protection inside the park.
We continue with the dedicated work to protect the species despite the challenges along the way, HEC being one of them.
Another conflict that arises from HEC is a conflict between local populations and protected area managers. This is frequent around national park, and it is due to a lack of participation of local communities in the management of protected areas and, sometimes, to poor relations between local communities and protected area managers. As a result, local communities often have a hostile attitude towards the authorities responsible for wildlife protection and, more broadly, towards the concept of protected areas. A big part of our work is to support communities, but unfortunately the lack of resources and the size of the park does not allow us to solve all the problems at the same time and limits the work we can accomplish in a short space of time. However, we are dedicated to change mindsets around the management of Upemba national park and partnering with communities is one of our priorities.
Rehabilitation of the park will not only contribute to saving the planet, but we aim to assist and help bring growth to communities living in and alongside the park a new sustainable income and a better life in general, as we are already doing at Mabwe, located on the shores of Upemba Lake.
During one of our trips to Upemba Park last month, February 2022, on our passage to one of the villages affected by this HEC, we encountered a very disturbing situation, when a large crowd of villagers with sticks in their hands surrounded the place we were accommodated for the night, while chanting and violently expressing they discontentment in a rather threatening manner.
Violence is not necessary as we are on the same side, and we should all work together. We are thankful cause our ICCN armed rangers, although threatened, remained extremely calm, listening to complaints, and not showing any sign of violence, which helped a lot to calm the situation. If we can solve a problem with words, I think we should try our best not to be violent. Responding with violence could have caused the situation to escalate negatively quickly.
As mentioned, HEC creates hostility from local communities towards park managers and rangers. Without going too deep into the details of this situation, our team leaders, after long hours of discussion with the community leader and other key members, concluded on the approach towards the HEC situation together in a partnership, because we work to rehabilitate and save nature, but also for the sustainable development of communities. And therefore, without our communities, we cannot move forward.
We then walked for couple of kilometers to take account of the damages caused by elephants. Strangely, we realized that the damages caused were not major, and that there was more fear than visible damage in this specific situation.
The presence of elephants has created fear, stress, worry, and the situation has become more psychological than physical.
Our rangers took time to drive elephants away from villages, and a team was placed in the vicinity to monitor the movement of elephants and prevent another attack from occurring, thus ensuring that the population remained calm.
This solution is just a little temporary way of mitigating the problem faced, but we continue to work hard to create a deeper and closer relationship with communities and together work in finding better solutions that can mitigate the conflict.
Fortunately, in the coming months, experts will be coming to assist us and communities to better understand the behaviour of elephants. We aim to form a team to prepare preliminary information on the location of the different elephant herds in the park to guide and facilitate a team of researchers on the issue. We will find customized solutions to the conflict that we can then implement.
It is very important for us to be transparent about the intensive work we are doing at Upemba National Park, and by sharing this information we can make you part of the rehabilitation process.
Together we can save Upemba National Park and create what once was one of the richest biodiversity areas in the country, while meeting social and economic needs of local communities, and making our work a model for sustainable development and peaceful cohabitation between communities and conservation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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