The elephant in the room

Many things affect our lives. Only some of these things get the notice that they deserve. We tend to fixate on the big, flashy events, while other linked events, just as important, are overlooked.

One big and flashy event in my life was the Canterbury Quakes. The 7.1 quake of September 4th 2010 and the 6.0 of February 22nd 2011 set up a long period of aftershocks that persisted on a daily to weekly basis for several years (see here, here, here). Homes were wrecked, people were killed and hurt, businesses failed.

We became so familiar with quakes that we could determine their size, depth and distance from the origin point fairly accurately. We became so experienced that we would not consider stopping what we were doing for anything less than a 5.0.

There were many hidden effects of the quakes that did not receive the same coverage as the more obvious and visible damage and shaking. Here are some of the effects that I noticed.

Because of the extended period of stress, with constant reminders of the quakes through hourly, then daily aftershocks for several years, a lot of anxiety developed, especially in young children. Their world was literally and figuratively rocked for a long time. This anxiety continues to manifest.

In central Christchurch there was almost a complete loss of landmarks. This has made an area that was once very familiar, a strange and disconcerting place. Many people I know have not gone back to the city centre in eight years.

The Christchurch Cathedral was a prominent casualy of the Canterbury quakes (as were several hundred buildings in the city centre. Image from Adrian Paterson.

I live in Lincoln. This was still a fairly rural little town at the time of the quakes. With an enormous surge of people moving out of the city and away from the red zone, Lincoln and its surrounds have become increasingly urbanised.  Where I used to look out of my office window and see paddocks, I now see houses.

In my role on the local high school board, we have had eight years where we have had almost no control over our property budget as we await major repairs and upgrades. This means that the school envionment just treads water despite us having enhancements that need to be made.

Everyone has an insurance story. Almost all of these added to the stress of living through these years. Even the university has only just settled their insurance claim. My department has lived next to a rubble site for seven years, little upkeep has been done on our building, and many others on campus, in the expectation that it will be done once we have the insurance money. This has not helped morale!

Marmite! My favourite breakfast spread, made in Christchurch, was unavailable for two years after the main quakes. I had to have jam on my toast! The humanity!

Obviously, I could go on about my depressed cat, and lost concert venues, increased resilience, a bajillion new cafe options or that I carry a cellphone in my pocket always – even if I going a few metres down the corridor to the photocopier (just in case…). The point is that, wrapped around these events, there are thousands of minor ones that can still impact our lives.

Elephants in Africa seem a long way from earthquakes in New Zealand. Abel Mamboleo recently completed his PhD at Lincoln University where he looked at how to monitor and model the effects that elephants have on the lives of his fellow Tanzanians.

Elephants in Tanzania. A detail from a painting by G. Majewicz.

Elephants are noticeable in the environment. They have obvious impacts ranging from destroying crops and buildings, to causing human deaths. These effects are relatively easy to record.

Like earthquakes, though, there are lot of potential hidden effects that can also affect human populations. Abel used government information and a GIS platform to look at where damage and deaths occurred. He also conducted a questionnaire approach in districts surrounding the northern boundary of the Serengeti and Grumeti parks. There are lots of elephants in these parks and they often cross into human areas.

In a paper in the Journal of Environmental Imformatics Letters, with Crile Doscher and Adrian Paterson, Abel used information collected from surveys of people from different village districts that interact with elephants on a regular basis. Abel was particularly interested in the geographic distribution of impacts, particularly hidden impacts.

Hidden impacts from elephants are mostly associated with the potential risk of injury or death if humans encounter them. This generally means that people will choose to stay at home if there are elephants in the vicinity. This can impact on learning for children as their school attendance drops. Less firewood and fruit is collected. Sleep is interrupted if elephants are close. Adults guarding crops are more likely to suffer disease by being out during the night. Families can slide into debt, or even abandon farms after elephant damage. Marriages can be disrupted as partners are apart for significant time (with all of the complications that can bring).

The kind of elephant that you want in your room. Image from Adrian Paterson.

Abel was able to record and map incidents of hidden effects in response to elephants. Across his 12 villages he found 327 hidden effect incidents over just 6 months. He found that the hidden effects were patchily distributed with hotspots of activity in certain areas. Around half of these events occurred to people less that 2000 m from the park boundaries, although impacts on school attendance peaked between 4-6000 m.

Farm abandonment accounted for around 3/4 of hidden impacts. Marriage issues only occurred twice. Again these were patchily distributed over the area.

One lesson from Abel’s work is that we do need to take hidden effects into consideration when looking at how elephants and humans interact. These effects are far more common than the more obvious destruction caused by elephants. Compensation is relatively easy to calculate if a crop is ruined or an implement shed knocked down. However, what is cost of children missing 25% of their schooling or of more farm labourers picking up diseases? Or just for the increase in anxiety?

With elephant populations on the rise in many parts of Africa these, and other questions, will need to be answered if humans and elephants are going to proper together. We need to be able to deal with the elephant in the room both when there is an elephant in your room and when there may be an elephant wandering around outside your room.

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