How to stop, the elephant in your crop

Elephants have long fascinated me. I think it goes back to tv series from the early/mid 1970s called ‘Elephant Boy‘. This was a Australian/ English/ German production that was filmed in Sri Lanka and loosely based on the book ‘Toomai, the elephant boy‘ by Rudyard Kipling.

I don’t remember a great deal about the show other than that Toomai had adventures with the family elephant, Kala Nag. They lived beside a national park and there were issues about poaching and other villains, maybe some lost and injured travelers, and encounters with dangerous wildlife. Usually Toomai and Kala Nag would help to save the day.

I seem to recall that Toomai would often get Kala Nag to sit down so that he could mount her for a ride. Once seated Toomai would say “Up Kala Nag” and off they would go. I still use this line when I need to get the wife out of a comfy chair!

To a young boy, the thought of having a pet elephant was quite cool. Often Kala Nag would push over trees or tow logs behind her. You could sit on their back in a river while she squirted water on you. It would be like having your own bulldozer that could find its own fuel.

On reflection, though, having an elephant might not have been so good in rural South Otago. We didn’t have that many trees. Dad would have noticed if some had been pushed over. Given the coolness of the the rivers, there probably wouldn’t have been too many days when you would have wanted to be dowsed in water. And mum certainly wouldn’t have wanted a pachyderm in the cabbages. They eat a lot and trample the rest.

Still, there’s a lot to like about elephants.

The kind of elephant you don’t mind in your garden. Image by Adrian Paterson

A few years back I was approached by Abel Mamboleo and Crile Doscher. Abel was keen to work on geospatial issues around elephants in his home in Tanzania. They wanted a zoologist to help with the the animal side of things while they dealt with modelling and GIS.

Absolutely, I was keen.

Abel collected information on elephants that are found in Bunda Province that borders the Serengeti and Grumeti Game Reserves. Elephants are native species in these areas. The reserves are home to large populations of elephants and sometimes they move out of these areas and into surrounding farmland. Once in these human populated areas they can cause many issues, from crop destruction to human injuries and deaths. There are also many ‘hidden impacts’ that Abel has also investigated.

Abel interviewed locals to get their experiences with elephants, where they saw them, what damage they did, how many were present and so on. He was also able to plot where these incidents happened. In a paper in Journal of Environmental Informatics Letters, Abel reports on what he found regarding crop damage.

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

Only 6% of crop damage occurred away (> 2 km) from the borders with the Serengeti and Grumeti or from the edges of rivers. There were identifiable hotspots of activity in some of the village areas.

This kind of information is of practical use for designing reserves and of deciding what size buffer to place around the reserves (where people should not live or grow crops). This is also useful in designing migration routes that are safe for elephants and humans.

Living with elephants is very challenging and can be very dangerous. As human and elephant populations grow they will continue to come into contact and, thus, conflict. Abel’s work on understanding the interactions between humans and elephants, including hidden impacts, will allow some of these conflicts to be avoided or at least reduced.

Ultimately, we want those friendly, warm relationships between humans and elephants that I remember from watching Toomai and Kala Nag.

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