Sitting in my home in the UK, it’s pretty clear that I’m far removed from many of the endangered wild species and exotic megafauna that I write about on the pages of this blog.
As such, it’s easy to think that saving wild animals in their native environments is simply a given. In many cases, however, living in close proximity to large, powerful and sometimes dangerous creatures, comes with a number of caveats concerning human safety.
I got to speak with the team at Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) Namibia about their PEACE Project to help communities to co-exist with desert elephants.
Introducing Namibia’s desert elephants
Desert elephants or desert-dwelling elephants have made their home in the Namib desert in Namibia, Africa. They are small, diminishing herds that experience both biological and physical struggles for survival and subsequently, these elephants exhibit small adaptations to the extreme temperatures and terrain.
Desert-dwelling elephants are not a genetically distinct species, but are African bush elephants with unique characteristics (Africa’s only other species of elephant are forest elephants).
They can survive without drinking water for several days, surviving by eating moisture-laden vegetation that grows in riverbeds. Sometimes, they must travel long distances to reach a water source.
Elephants, livestock and humans are sharing the same waterpoints, which not only sparks conflict, but also results in human and elephant fatalities.
Shared land, resources and an ongoing drought in the region leaves communities and animals without much food or water.
Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA)
Since 2003, Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) Namibia has helped to build peaceful relationships between free-roaming desert elephants and local communities.
“EHRA aim to find long term sustainable solutions to conserve the free-roaming desert dwelling elephant and to mitigate conflict between elephants and villagers,” Shannon Diener, ERHA’s PEACE Project Manager explains to me.
ERHA has appointed ‘elephant guards’ from five different areas which are hotspots of Human-Wildlife-Conflict, that work on a volunteer basis.
“They are a point of contact in a case of emergency in villages. They have had intense training with EHRA on tracking, conflict response, conflict mitigation measures, and elephant physiology. They work with EHRA stuff on seminars and they work within their own communities giving mini trainings and advising residence how to safely co-exist with elephants and other wildlife.”
The elephant guards form part of a wider project to mitigate the human-elephant conflict Namibia faces, known as the PEACE project.
“The PEACE project was established in 2009, due to an increase in conflict between humans and elephants in the Kunene and Erongo regions. Most of these conflicts lead to fatalities of both elephants and humans.”
With an aim to carry across the message of wildlife conservation and ecology, PEACE was established to work on the ground level of communities, to understand the people’s grievances and to jointly come up with solutions.
EHRA’s effective PEACE Project teaches residents essential facts about how elephants live and behave, how to interpret elephant behaviour, and how to protect themselves and their livelihoods during encounters with elephants.
What is the PEACE Project?
The PEACE Project is an elephant-focused conservation education programme for the communities living in the southern Kunene and northern Erongo regions, where many of Namibia’s desert elephants roam.
“The land is state-owned and primarily used by communal farmers for subsistence livestock farming, where conflicts between people and their elephant neighbours happen frequently,” PEACE Project Manager Shannon Diener shares.
“Through educational PEACE workshops, people of all age groups and social backgrounds learn and experience the true nature of elephants, which decreases their fears and changes unfounded beliefs and attitudes.”
As a result of the successful implementation of this programme, EHRA’s PEACE Project team extended the curriculum to host a variety of different seminars, depending on the outcome required.
“From school seminars and community workshops, we also conduct elephant guard training, game guard training and tour guide training – all with a specific focus on the conservation of Namibia’s desert elephants.”
Reason’s for conflict between human and elephants
As is often the case, the conflict between the desert elephants and human population comes from a number of factors, which have seen these two species pushed together.
Historical events and influences
During the Namibian War of Independence, elephants fled further north for safety, returning to the Ugab River in the mid-1990s. New residents that moved to the region had never encountered elephants before and thus did not know how to live with them.
Insufficient knowledge about desert elephants has caused people to react negatively towards elephants passing by. This could result in conflict situations which can injure humans, elephants or livestock, or worse; it could be fatal.
Habitat fragmentation and land conversion
Conflict between elephants and humans exists due to increased competition for land and water resources, and a lack of knowledge on how to live together peacefully.
Lack of income and benefits
Desert-adapted elephants are one of the country‘s biggest tourist attraction. Lodges and campsites draw thousands of tourists into the area. Unfortunately, most subsistence farmers that live with elephants only experience the downside of having elephants as neighbours, with no financial benefit.
Limited resources and competition
Limited resources in arid areas such as the Kunene and Erongo regions in Namibia, can cause competition for water and food that usually escalates quickly. Desert elephant often visit farms or schools in search of water and food in gardens and pose a potential threat to residents.
How you can support the PEACE Project
The PEACE Project receives no funding from the government or EHRA’s operations budget; it depends solely on donations, grants and other funding to provide training to communities free of charge. These donations help pay for the educational materials, transportation and meals.
The entire program aims to produce more informed and safe residents and tourists who can appreciate elephants as a significant asset in their lives. This hopefully will lead to more relaxed, less aggressive elephants as well.
You can find out more and support EHRA’s work with a donation here: www.ehranamibia.org/peace-project-ehra
Learn more about African elephants
Want to know more about African elephants?
- Discover How many elephants?
- Learn about Amarula’s support of How Many Elephants
- Read about the plight of elephants during CITES 2016
- Discover the short film ‘The Elephant in the Room’
- Read more about ivory poaching
- Find out about my World of Wildlife Art Exhibition in support of elephants
- See what happened on World Elephant Day 2018