Preventing Human Elephant Conflict

Update (11/11/17)

It's been over 2 years since I first came into contact with human-elephant conflict in Zambia...and watching Netflix's The Ivory Game (Leonardo DiCaprio) last night just brought back me. And it's great to see the progress that's been made...with China announcing it will shut down its ivory market by the end of 2017.

It felt like yesterday when Sandy saved me from walking into a herd of elephants at night, and that was the start of my appreciation and love for elephants. While I grew up 3 blocks from the San Francisco zoo, it's something else when you see these gigantic mammals roaming in the wild. The last of the dinosaurs. 

And it really is sad to hear that there are only around 350,000 elephants left in Africa (compared with 10 million in 1900) with an annual decline of 27,000...which means that the extinction of the elephant may be possible during our lifetimes.

What many don't know is that human-elephant conflict in villages catalyzes poaching. As long as villagers continue growing up thinking elephants are the enemy, poaching is going to be accepted. There was a scene in the documentary where elephants were raiding a village (for food) at night, and the ravenous, weapon-wielding villagers gathered shouting:

"Today, this elephant, we will kill!"

Luckily, these animals were saved by the crew. The most viable solution right now is electric fences, but that is extremely costly. It will continue to be a long fight to come...but a much needed one. 


(May 2015)

Issue: 

In Africa, human populations are growing faster than elephant populations, leading to degradation of elephant habitats and increased conflict between elephants and small scale farmers. Elephants are being squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats, while farmers continue to plant crops that elephants like to eat. As a result, elephants have raided and destroyed 100% of the harvests for many subsistence farmers while contributing to increased violence between humans and elephants.

 

Why it matters?

Solving the issue between human elephant conflict can contribute to a resurgence of the African economy by increasing value in agricultural crop yields, while mitigating potential violent encounters between humans and elephants. And because elephants are vital to the ecological landscape, a solution can also yield environmental and wildlife benefits.

 

Background 

Sandy Simpson's electric fences have improved the lives of thousands of Zambians by eliminating conflict between humans and elephants.

When Sandy Simpson read a National Geographic article in the early 2000s that stated the animal population had been decimated by 90% in the past century, he packed his bags, sold his business in Europe, and moved back to his hometown in Kenya to work in animal conservation. 

For the last 2 years, he’s been working to solve the human elephant conflict in Zambia with his NGO, Green Rural African Development (GRAD). If you zoom into where rural African villages are located on Google Earth, you will find that many villages are located on or near the premises of a national park or in other words, humans and animals cohabit. This has resulted in years and years of conflict between humans and elephants, a problem that remains unresolved.

Zambian Wildlife Authority’s (ZAWA) response to this problem? Issue fireworks to local farmers to scare away the elephants. However, this created another set of problems – fireworks were dangerous and only a temporary fix. Thus, Mr. Simpson thought the best solution was prevention. His first project involved a local farmer, Robby, whose farm had been devastated by elephants for the past 10 years, leading to starvation and his family’s departure from farming in Livingstone, leaving him to solely end to the farm. Mr. Simpson started with simple string and reflective tape surrounding Robby’s farm, which provided instant results – elephants saw the reflective tape and string at night and immediately turned back. This is Robby’s story…


Robby’s Story          

Robby (left) and his uncle in front of their new banana tree

Robby’s family started a career in farming 30 years ago in Maloni Village, a community of 6,000 people within Livingstone. The first 10 years proved to be successful with limited conflict between humans and animals – the harvests were successful. Then, the elephants started coming. And for the next 20 years, they raided and destroyed the village crops every night. The maize. The okra. The tomatoes. Everything was gone even before the harvesting season began, forcing farmers to harvest long before crops were ripe for picking.

As a result, Robby’s family and most farmers in Maloni Village, never had a successful harvest in the past 20 years. And because most of these farmers are subsistence farmers, lack of crops also meant starvation at times. Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) could only do so much as to provide fireworks to scare off the elephants. However, according to Robby, fireworks never solved the problem and only scared off the elephants temporarily. In fact, fireworks were extremely dangerous. Robby’s brother attempt to scare off the elephants one night with fireworks was disastrous – the fireworks blew up in his hand and caused serious injury. In addition, elephants entering human settlement has also caused for serious danger stemming from human elephant conflict. While elephants are peaceful animals at heart, when taunted to an extent, they can become violent and have caused serious injuries and even human deaths.

 This forced Robby’s family to abandon the farming business 7 years ago to find greener pastures elsewhere, leaving Robby to independently take over the farm. He continued to struggle until 2014, when Green Rural African Development (GRAD) Founder, Sandy Simpson, decided the best solution was the prevention of human elephant encounters. Mr. Simpson decided to fence off Robby’s farm with string and lights, which produced immediate results as elephants saw the tape at night as a warning sign. While effective, there was still a big problem – villagers continued to steal the lights. Thus, Mr. Simpson decided it was most effective to install an electric fence system around Maloni Village to block out the elephants. The results were effective and incredible. Elephants would come at night but stop at the sight of the reflector tape and electric fence. So far in 2015, there have been no human elephant encounters in Maloni Village.

 With the elephants gone, Robby’s family decided to move back into the farm. And with newfound confidence, they decided to expand the farm to include a chicken house, pig house, and new varieties of crops. Previously, they had only focused on maize, acra, and tomato. However, they have now expanded to include eggplants, bananas, guavas, and sunflower to name a few. Robbie says the market demand is there but the supply is not, so they even have plans to acquire new farmland to meet the demand. In addition to feeding their family, they are now selling their crops in the village market and town, generating revenues of over $150 per month (vs. $0 same period last year). With newfound confidence now that their crops are safe from elephants, they have a target of $550 per month by year-end.

 

Why Is It Important?

Her house was constantly under attack by elephants due to her mango trees. With Mr. Simpson's help, she no longer has to worry about elephants raiding her crops.

Her house was constantly under attack by elephants due to her mango trees. With Mr. Simpson's help, she no longer has to worry about elephants raiding her crops.

Mr. Simpson’s work in human elephant conflict has directly and indirectly helped and benefitted thousands of people in Livingstone. Subsistence farmers are now not only able to feed and support their families but create a living off selling their crops, resulting in a boost to the local economy.  

Who else benefits? Large supermarkets no longer have to import vegetables and fruits from hundreds of miles away, potentially saving them thousands of dollars in transportation costs – they can now buy directly from the local farmers for a cheaper price in addition to fresher produce. Buying locally also mitigates the risk of potential losses or lag time from transportation. Locals and tourists also benefit – supermarkets may pass on the savings in lower produce costs and fresher produce. Finally, a reduction in human elephant conflict means less potential violence, which may lead to a revival of the elephant population stemming from a better relationship amongst humans and elephants.

 

What are the Challenges?

Mr. Simpson is currently a one-man team with the help of several volunteers. While human elephant conflict is a major problem in Africa, efforts to resolve the problem are minimal; Mr. Simpson is currently the only known person in Africa fully dedicated at resolving the problem.

“It’s a very simple solution, anyone can do this. But we need money and support.” 

Mr. Simpson has been currently funding the project with his personal savings, having spent over an estimated $250,000 in personal savings in the past several years. What are the costs? It takes an estimated $1,000 per kilometer of electric fence. Take into account the thousands of kilometers surrounding conflict farms, and you will get an amount surpassing the millions.

 

Final Thoughts

The problem between humans and elephants in Africa is clear and a big one. However, it is a big problem with a simple solution. While educating the public about the importance of ecological sustainability is a much bigger issue, a practical and implementable solution right now is prevention as there is no barrier separating elephants and farms. One risk is the possibility of snaring, but it is trivial in the overarching problem between humans and elephants. Furthermore, electric fence voltage is only high enough to shock the elephants from entering and is not lethal; elephants are also trained to steer away from fences.

Solutions in Africa have to be simple. Mr. Simpson has proved this to be true and has effectively improved the lives of thousands of people in Zambia. He has plans to develop additional preventative measures, such as buzzing infrasound devices on the fences (elephants hate bees). But he needs money and more importantly, support. This is a problem that affects thousands of farmers directly and millions of people indirectly. The perfect solution may not exist but the best solution at the moment is prevention.

If you would like to find out more about Mr. Simpson and GRAD’s efforts, please visit www.gradinternational.org

How much "mom" time is left?

"It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end." - Wait But Why

It occurred to me as I woke up this morning, perhaps from a dream or nightmare, but I asked myself the question, "How many days does mom or dad have left on this planet?"

Frightening thought.

It brought me back to a powerful Wait Buy Why article, "The Tail End," that depicted how much time we have left with mom and dad in pictures. It hadn't occur to me that moving away for college and life would mean that I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. Occasional holiday visits would be the only time to congregate with family and even then, I remember those home visits during my early to mid 20s were used to hang out with friends. How young and irresponsible of me.

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How much "in-person" time we have left with our parents...

That's why I'm making it a priority to spend as much time with my parents while I'm around. They have this amazing story of perseverance growing up under poverty and hardships during the Cultural Revolution and eventually making it to America to provide a better life for my sister and me. I'm extremely grateful and currently working on a project to document these stories while I still can.

The Power of Language

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Many of my favorite quotes are from this wise man. And it certainly resonates with me as someone who believes in the power of language.

It started with a curiosity to learn more about my heritage when I took a Chinese class the summer before college. While I spoke Cantonese at home, I felt it was my responsibility to learn Mandarin as a Chinese American. It was a response to face a burning itch to learn more about my identity as a first generation.

And this puzzling identity crisis thing exacerbated itself during a taxi ride one summer abroad in Shanghai. I was there to study Chinese, and it was my first time abroad solo. The taxi driver was taking me from the Pudong airport to East China university, where I would be studying. He was kindly chatting about the weather and the developments in Shanghai (I could understand), but I was mute because I couldn't respond (or rather, I was too shy).

 

"Do you speak Chinese?"

 

A little bit, I responded. I explained to him I was a first-generation Chinese American, and I was in Shanghai for the summer to learn Chinese.

 

"I don't believe it. Your hair. Your eyes. The color of your skin. But you don't speak Chinese...therefore, you must be Korean or Japanese."

 

I felt embarrassed. I'm not sure I ever fit the stereotypical American persona, and I wasn't Chinese. From that point on, I made it an effort to master the Chinese language. In fact, I spent more time studying Chinese than my core Economics and Accounting classes. It was that important to me.

But it makes sense. If you speak someone's language, the wall comes tumbling down and you are One. And that's why even with the advancements in voice translation services, you're still speaking to someone's head with that Google Translator. It doesn't feel real (at least not yet). If you truly want to understand someone and get close, you must speak his or her own language. 

And that's why I'm currently trying to learn Spanish. Why? Because I want to speak to the hearts of 400 million native Spanish speakers around the world. 

Time and Regret...Lessons from Mr. Roper

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"Look at me! I'm 59 now and 30 years just passed by...Don't you ever have any regrets!"

 

I was shocked. Mr. Roper, who had been cracking jokes in the barbershop for the past hour, suddenly just broke down in front of me. I'll never forget those sorrowful eyes staring straight into mine...tears of regret.

I was staying in an Airbnb in Queens (NYC), which was conveniently located next to a barbershop and where some of the Airbnb guests hung out at night. What a magical place. You could smell the history of Queens and NYC envelop you the moment you walked. A flashback in time from the antiquated black-and-white photos to the chairs that stood the test of time. Mr. Roper was a storyteller who captivated us with his life stories in the 1960s...from the social movements that brewed to the crack era...it was the type of stories one could only imagine, especially being seated in a 100-year old family-run barbershop.

....but then it turned somber. Mr. Roper suddenly grabbed me by the arm and looked me in the eye with the most remorseful look...

 

"Time, man! Time just passes! Look at me! I'm 59 now and 30 years just passed. Look at ya'll. Still so young...but this is what you should be doing! Traveling...don't you ever have any regrets!"

 

Dead silence. While many of his stories were jovial in nature, Mr. Roper did express many regrets (that I won't go into). We continued listening, comforting, and thanking him for his hospitality and when the night was over, Mr. Roper gave me a firm good-bye handshake...

 

"I'm so glad ya'll came. Don't you ever forget about the time."

 

And that was good-bye. But it's a lesson and a stare I'll never forget. Thanks for the lesson, Mr. Roper...I won't forget about the time.